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A Biologist Tries To Make Sense Of A Very Complex Mental State

THE SCIENTIFIC ATTITUDE Frederick Grinnell Westuiew; Boulder, Col.; 141 pages; $29.50 (hardback), $13.50 (paperback) “Serious play.” A “myth of scientific induction.” An amalgam of “politics, sex, wine, movies, teamwork, rivalry genius, stupidity and virtually everything that make life in the lab and out something less than perfect and a great deal more than dull.” These are but three of the many descriptions of science quoted by cell biologist, Frederic

By | June 27, 1988

THE SCIENTIFIC ATTITUDE
Frederick Grinnell
Westuiew; Boulder, Col.; 141 pages;
$29.50 (hardback), $13.50 (paperback)

“Serious play.” A “myth of scientific induction.” An amalgam of “politics, sex, wine, movies, teamwork, rivalry genius, stupidity and virtually everything that make life in the lab and out something less than perfect and a great deal more than dull.”

These are but three of the many descriptions of science quoted by cell biologist, Frederick Grinnell as he sets out “to analyze what scientists take for granted to be science.”

Grinnell’s book, The Scientific Attitude, skips wine and movies but works its way through most of the rest of a researcher’s life, describing the practice of science: how a scientist chooses problems for study, writes grant proposals, or evaluates prospective faculty members. Grinnell concludes with commentaries on the way science interacts with politics and religion.

Science students especially, whatever their disciplines, will enjoy his insider’s asides: on the graduate student’s love of novel methodology versus the senior investigator’s disinclination toward it; or on the NIH study section reviewer’s natural tendency to second-guess what scores a proposal needs in order to get funded.

A student in science studies will find it a clear introduction to the daily practice of science; my research assistant used it as a text in 100-level courses and found it quite successful. However, I do take issue with the book’s conclusions about the attitude of science.

While subjectivity may be fine for sensitive poets, and objectivity for insensitive clods, neither seems to make sense of the complex of mental states known as “the scientific attitude.” The nature of this attitude, Grinnell tells us; is to be found somewhere in the middle of these extremes, in the realm of intersubjectivity. He gets more mileage out of this bit of wisdom than just about anyone writing in science studies today. Too bad he’s probably wrong.

A few words need to be said about the motivation for claiming that science is intersubjective. On one hand, if science were purely subjective, no one could explain how individual scientists with different opinions could ever agree, or even agree to disagree.

On the other hand, if science were purely objective, there wouldn’t have been much need for explicit coordination either, as the uniformity of objective reality would ensure the uniformity of scientists’ opinions. This leaves us with the conceptual way station of intersubjectivity to explain science’s distinctive “attitude.”

In Grinnell’s guided tour through his own science, cell biology, the reader is treated to a succession of groups: microscopists arguing over how to make sense of a blurry slide, a research director assigning tasks to his graduate students, an NSF panel deciding over a grant proposal. In each case, a meeting of minds, or a “thought collective,” determines what passes as acceptable science.

While Grinnell is willing to admit collective misunderstanding can arise by the time science reaches a decision-making body in Washington, he sees the preceding steps as a series of successfully negotiated settlements. Not everyone necessarily gets his or her own way in science, but Grinnell’s point would be that everyone comes to recognize whose way prevails.

However, if the reader stops to wonder how minds that perceive the physical world so differently could be in touch with each other any more regularly, then the reader has begun to call the intersubjectivist’s bluff. If Grinnell’s theory of science were true, the field would exhibit little of the divisiveness and divergence of belief documented in the literature of science studies.

Maybe Grinnell’s catchall sense of intersubjectivity is part of the scientist’s natural attitude, another aspect of the science its practitioners take for granted. Whether it is the attitude readers should accept as “scientific” is an entirely different matter.

Steve Fuller, editor of the journal Social Epistemology, is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado.


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