The Art of Scientific Investigation – by W.I.B. Beveridge

I finished this book a couple of days ago, the same book I mentioned from last Wednesday’s post. First, I’ll start with an introduction and general outline of the book’s chapters, then noting its weak points where they exist, and finally, infer a conclusion of the overall quality of the book including my recommendations of its strong points.

This book is a reprint of the 1957 revised edition, which like the first, was written by William Ian Beardmore Beveridge, a professor of animal pathology at Cambridge Uni. It’s a handbook for budding and wannabe scientists (like me) describing the psychological and conceptual factors in scientific research and practice, revealing a complex and sometimes messy picture of the enterprise of actually doing science, contrary to the simplistic (and unrealistic) picture of scientific methods given in most textbooks. Each chapter handles a different general area of the art of the research worker, with each area’s purpose, pitfalls, and a tentative description of how it works.

Chapter I, Preparation: This section describes the requirement of a scientist to keep up with the literature relevant to a field of study, and in such a manner, reading critically and reflectively to retain freshness of mind and originality of outlook, not just to soak up information through rote memorization. It recommends starting one’s research with easier projects in mind that expert guidance can help in before tackling more difficult research goals. It describes collecting field or laboratory data, gathering and correlating it and breaking greater problems down into smaller, more manageable ones, making educated guesses, formulating as many hypotheses as can be done, and getting ready for chapter II…

Experimentation: This section involves guidelines for setting up and conducting experimental or observational tests of hypotheses, the randomization of subjects, eliminating possible confounding factors, the importance of note-taking, careful observation and objectivity, especially using the proper statistical tools to assess the result (but chosen prior to the data collection process.). This notes that experimentation is not infallible and the difficulty in definitively falsifying hypotheses. Much of the section is written in terms of biological research, though the basic ideas can transfer nicely to other fields with modifications.

Chapter III, Chance: Many of the greatest discoveries were found quite by accident, and the anecdotes related here show how fortuitous they were in the history of science – the wise research worker keeps an eye open for these opportunities and the unexpected wonders they reveal to his(or her) scrutiny when they happen. Advice is given for best exploiting the unforeseen and the rewards for doing so.

Chapter IV, Hypothesis: This provides guidelines and criteria for the use of hypothesis, the benefits stemming even from false hypotheses (they may lead to unexpected findings even if shown wrong) and the importance of not becoming too attached to those one formulates oneself. Also noted is the importance of avoiding allowing observations and conclusions from being biased by the hypothesis itself, the importance of objectivity and the pitfalls of ignoring it.

Chapter V, Imagination: Yes, Virginia, scientists do need an imagination, and the best have the most creative. Suggestions are given for productive and creative thinking, the downside of false trails, the importance of curiosity and discussion as stimuli to creative thinking, and the dangers of conditioned thinking and how to avoid them. Of all the chapters, this and the next are my favorites…

Chapter VI, Intuition: …Those weird, often misleading, but sometimes correct little ideas that just seem to pop into one’s head from nowhere. This is the realm of scientific inspiration, where in the best minds the birth-rate of ideas exceeds to mortality rate of the same. The psychology of intuition is described, much of it from well-established and still-valid studies used in the psychological literature even today. Of key interest are the conditions needed to bring about such intuition and conditions that hinder it, plus a description of scientific esthetics, used in assessing and evaluating ideas and their elegance and usefulness.

Chapter VII, Reason: This describes the uses, benefits, problems and pitfalls of reason and reasoning, and how they do and do not apply to science. Here’s hint – reason by itself can’t tell you what’s true or false, and is used primarily to analyze data and the consistency of hypotheses, and for that last, it’s crucial.

Chapter VIII, Observation: This section gives illustrations and examples of the use of observation in the history of science, also later giving general principles on it — the difficulty of accurately doing it in complex situations, the requirements for doing it effectively, and the practical impossibility of observing everything, even the most perceptive of us. It also notes the fact that observation is not passive, but involves and active mental element to, in our construals of what we observe. None of this, of course, having to do with quantum mysticism.

Chapter IX, Difficulties: This section describes impediments to the research worker, from mental resistance to new ideas to entrenched authorities, to religious and political ideology, to logical and cognitive fallacies, the major barriers to the conduct of science are described, and how they can interfere with the acceptance of research findings, including the occasional lack of tact on the part of some scientists — the example of Semmelweis is cited here.

Chapter X, Strategy: Here are described the tactical, strategic, and policy levels involved in group-research, the tactical level for the individual scientist, the strategic for the senior director of a research team, and the policy level management for defining the overall research effort for certain projects. The benefits, drawbacks, and dangers inherent in each are given here, including guidelines for maximizing their usefulness and minimizing the hazards for the benefit of the research program and the initiative and autonomy of the research worker.

Chapter XI, Scientists: Here is given the importance of ethics and scientific values, a general description of the types of scientific minds, their strengths and weaknesses, and the schemes given over the years to categorize them — difficult to say the least — and finally an overview of the life of the individual researcher with suggestions for taking up a career in the sciences.

There were a few difficulties I had with the book:

First, of course, considering the time it was published, 1957 (mine’s a reprint), the science is a bit dated, and much of what was a mystery then is no longer now, though a lot of the psychology research is still valid. Most of what has been surpassed is in the biological, medical, and neurological fields, with a scattering of others…

Second, the writing is a dated too, and the male pronoun is used almost exclusively throughout the text, and I hope that this will be no impediment for the better sex’s enjoying this book as much as I have. Consider the era.

Personally, this book has been a major influence on my thinking about science, what it is, how it’s done and what it’s for, and reading it has strengthened my love of science and appreciation for it all the more.

Science, is… science, but scientific investigation is… indeed an art, not a science.

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