Sunday, June 3, 2012

The adventure of filling the gap (Books - Remarkble Creatures by Sean B. Carroll)

Molecular biologist Sean B. Carroll wrote Remarkable Creatures (Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) to both capture the excitement of scientific discoveries and communicate their meaning within the context of evolutionary biology. In relating the journeys of scientists in this National Book Award finalist, he acknowledges a debt to authors C. W. Ceram - Gods, Graves, and Scholars, a classic work about archeology - and Paul de Kruif - Microbe Hunters, mini-biographies of pioneers in microbiology, a work to which I owe my initial love of science.

Remarkable Creatures is a clearly written and passionate account of how field science gets done.  Its subject may not seem as relevant to the average reader as popular works about healthcare or how our brains learn, but one could say it is of even greater significance
because it is about where we and our knowledge of who we are come from.  Carroll manages to evoke something of the vastness of the scale of time of which we are a part.  He also relates how the discoveries of science advance in fits and starts, sometimes over decades, how the biases of smart and well-intentioned scientists can sometimes drive the interpretation of data in what later turns out to be a mistaken directions, how greatly our understanding can change when examining data on a different scale, and how disagreements resolve and their conclusions become scientific theory, entering the public realm as general knowledge.  

The story of how science feeds knowledge is important to the general reader because we are faced with so much information and because science is often prioritized via how "consumable" it is.  The implication is, if it doesn't cure disease or directly relate to stuff we buy (food, cell phones), the average person would not be able to understand its importance.  Advancing knowledge is an incremental process, taking time and money.  Its false starts and dead ends inform the discoveries encompassed in our present knowledge as much as confirmed hypotheses do.  And the answers beget more questions, not certainty.  Science requires a process that forces one to put aside once cherished beliefs.  It requires maverick thinking which applies new measures to questions we thought we had answered.  Knowledge does not get made and flash frozen.  It evolves as we do and this really is the adventure of science expertly captured by Carroll.

Remarkable Creatures doesn't only accomplish this with portraits of usual suspects like Charles Darwin and the Leakeys, Carroll reveals the seemingly dry lives of unknown geologists and chasers of butterflies to be fascinating, adventure-filled, and relevant to the context of modern life.  They include 18th century Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who, it could be argued, inaugurated the search for the richness and variety of life forms.  His Narratives became a template of the adventure-travelogue as science narrative; and Charles Walcott, who through prodigious fossil collecting discovered how an explosion of life forms in the Cambrian period shaped biological history. This self-educated man rose to be secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the first head of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which became NASA in the 1950s.  Carroll relates each of their discoveries as the adventure story of an  unlikely hero or heroine.  He sets the scene by explaining the void in knowledge or unsettled argument, using each of the scientists' anticipation of filling this gap to drive the dramatic tension.  The continuity of his narrative relates how the successful discovery fueled new questions.

Michael Shermer's recent review of Stuart Firestein's Ignorance: How it drives science (a book I have not yet read) and Am I Making Myself Clear, Cornelia Dean's plea that scientists communicate more with general audiences, which I reviewed here, are two smart pieces which have in common the fear that misunderstandings about science could further imperil a culture rife with "climate deniers" and creationists.  Shermer worries that emphasizing that science is born of not knowing provides ammunition for magical thinkers, but his review makes clear that neither would he support white washing science to win support for evidence-based thought.  I imagine he would embrace Carroll's narrative for the way he imbues a sometimes contentious journey with the excitement of knowing.

Dean's book occasionally seems panic stricken that ignorance buffets us on all sides.  Her book and Nancy Baron's Escape from the Ivory Tower can make it sound as though scientists rarely write or speak effectively about their work and that any notion of complexity or lack of resolution will be certain to exclude most audiences.  Remarkable Creatures belies the notion that scientists can't write, that successful science writing should always stick to consumer-relevant ideas and that it should emphasize strong simple conclusions at the expense of what not yet resolved.  Scientific discovery is built on a foundation of what we know, but its excitement is fueled by what we don't.  Drawing more people to use hypothesis testing models and evidence-based thinking - the critical thinking tools of the scientist - may be less about Disneyfying science than about communicating the adventure the scientist feels in filling in the gap.

By the way, Gary Taubes has an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the controversy surrounding dietary recommendations on salt intake that points up the difficulty of making simple consumable messages regarding research outcomes.

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