copyright 2010-2021                  www.             about us                   home 

a Project Worldview Book Review

archive of all Project Worldview book and film reviews


the book:  The Knowledge Machine by Michael Strevens   reviewed by: Stephen P. Cook         date of review: April  2021

Science can be defined as a body of knowledge ultimately based on observation obtained by application of the scientific method. If forced to provide just a three word definition, one could do worse than using The Knowledge Machine. This is the title of a recent book by NYU Philosophy Professor Michael Strevens. In doing this, “machine” stands in for “the scientific method.” Part I and this four part book is titled “The Great Method Debate.” It presents nice account of opposing view of how science works—and in particular contrasting the views of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. I generally have faith in science’s built-in, self-correcting mechanism that depends on healthy skepticism to weed out what is not true. When properly functioning, I believe erroneous judgments will be rare, and when they are made they will soon be fixed. Strevens has much less faith.

  Granted humans are imperfect creatures and they can use science in perverted ways. As Strevans reports, CUNY sociologist Stanley Aronowitz has written, “Science legitimates itself by linking its discoveries with power, a connection which determines what counts as reliable knowledge…The strongest team decrees what counts as truth.” I disagree with such suggestions that scientific knowledge is subjectively arrived at.  And with those like Strevens who attack science by saying things like, “the logic of scientific reasoning is by its very nature subjective.”

  Strevens’ book nicely details how modern science developed only after the need to compartmentalize and avoid “subjective considerations and non empirical considerations (philosophical, religious, aesthetic) from official scientific argument” was appreciated. And that, while a great strength of science is an open-minded curiosity that asks questions and make connections through a wide swath of space and time, science also depends on minds narrowly focused. Not close-minded, but at times necessarily focused to “carry out tedious measurements and perform costly and time consuming experiments” as he describes it.  While Strevens’ book illustrates how human knowledge advanced in great strives once people realized the need for evidence gathered by careful observation and empirical testing, he paradoxically subtitled it, “How Irrationality Created Modern Science.” I fear that will attract anti-science readers, who’ll get encouragement from claims like  “…in their thinking about the connection between theory and data, scientists seem scarcely to follow any rules at all.”

  Were the author of this ridiculous statement here, I would patiently pull several books out of my library to convince him of his folly. I’d begin with Bright’s book. I’d shove his nose in the mathematical details of the 150 pages spanning four chapters with titles, ”Classification, Sampling, and Measurement,” “The Analysis of Experimental Data,” “Errors of Measurement,” and “Probability, Randomness, and Logic.” I’d point out that scientists were trained with books like this seventy years ago.  And that today—with improved techniques for statistical analysis of data—they’re undoubtedly getting even better equipped to not do what Strevens implies is often done: getting away with cheating. Strevens’ 350 page book has exactly three paragraphs related to statistical analysis. Such techniques, he says “can be gamed to illuminate the data from the most favorable (or publishable) angle.” I say he’s unfairly connecting scientists with a professional  ethics failing. 

  Despite having some educational value, I think Strevens’ book will eventually be placed in the category that philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been placed in by many: contributing to “the debasement of science and the debasement of truth.” Those are words of film-maker and onetime graduate student of Kuhn’s Errol Morris. Rather than developing through a gradual, cumulative process, Kuhn emphasized the importance of revolutionary periods of paradigm shifts. He argued that those on opposite sides of one of these shifts can’t communicate because of fundamental differences in worldviews. And that with those differences come different ways of doing science. Critics say he introduced a subjectivity, cultural relativism, and an irrationality into how many viewed science. Alexander Bird describes Paul Hoyningen-Huene’s understanding of Kuhn’s position as follows. “We cannot possibly find out whether a theory is true for that requires that we are able to compare the theory and reality, which in turn requires having an independent grasp on what reality is like. And that is precisely what we do not have—and if we did have it, we would not need the theory…” Morris sees a line from Kuhn to “alternative facts” famous Kelly Ann Conway to truth-challenged Donald Trump.

  While Strevens is seemingly not a radical subjectivist, at times he appears sympathetic to their argument. I’m especially disgusted with his treatment of the data that emerged from the 1919 solar eclipse expedition effort to test Einstein’s theory. He became famous after a team left by Sir Arthur Eddington essentially confirmed one of his general relativity-based theory predictions. Einstein had predicted that starlight passing near the Sun would be bent a slightly greater amount than Newton’s theory predicted. Michael Strevens’ book spends several pages taking Eddington to task for subjectivity in analyzing the data. He even reproduces a table from the expedition’s scientific report showing deflection amounts for 18 stars and blasts Eddington for throwing it out when it didn’t give the result Eddington supposedly wanted.

  Non-scientists often don’t understand that all measurements have some associated error or uncertainty. I took one look at the data for those 18 stars, put it in a spreadsheet, and calculated a standard deviation measure of that uncertainty. And I saw why Eddington justifiably threw it out that associated error or uncertainty was very large. The average deflection was 0.86 arcseconds— but the uncertainty was plus or minus 0.47. Streven says nothing about uncertainties associated with the measurements

  Eddington decided the poor data was a result of the telescope mirror getting too hot and expanding blurring the star images on the plates, making them difficult to measure. As someone who years ago spent hours measuring star positions on such plates—something philosopher Strevens has probably not done— I can certainly appreciate Eddington’s decision to throw out the data. Likewise I doubt Strevens regularly looks at data, calculates standard deviations, and appreciates the important of those uncertainties.

  In contrast, physicist Clifford Will—in his book Was Einstein Right? —is careful to include that critical information. He reports the two independently obtained data sets Eddington used as follows: one based on eight  photographic plates gave deflection value of 1.98 arcseconds with plus or minus 0.12 uncertainty; the other based on just two plates gave 1.61 arcseconds with plus or minus 0.31. The uncertainties are much smaller, indicative of much better data. Averaging the two values gives a result rather close to Einstein’s prediction of 1.75 arcseconds deflection. Does it conclusively prove Einstein was right? No. Strevens does provide an account of Karl Popper, famed philosophy of science guy who later took a dim view of Thomas Kuhn, being impressed with Einstein’s “willingness to subject his theory to empirical tests that might disprove it.” As Popper put it, “tests which could refute the theory tested, never establish it.”

  Elsewhere in his book Strevens, in one sentence, goes after 1923 Physics Nobel Prize winner Robert Millikan for omitting “many measurements that did not ‘look right’’’ What is being questioned is data from Millikan’s famous oil drop experiment, from which he derived the charge on the electron. I’ve spent hours with students in physics labs doing a version of Millikan’s experiment—and watching a Caltech produced video account of Millikan’s data handling. And a lifetime dealing with problematic data gathered by instrumental setups either compromised in some way, or operating with low signal to noise rations. I again have no problem with what Millikan did. I won’t completely diss Strevens’ book because I learned some things from it, and it got me thinking. But, after overcoming my instant dislike of its subtitle and reading it anyway, I was disappointed with where it went.


Here’s another review: The Knowledge Machine by Michael Strevens (book review by Jennifer Szalai   in The NY Times Oct 7 2020)


attention authors, readers, movie goers: If you have a book or film whose themes you think are especially relevant to Project Worldview and would like us to consider reviewing it please contact us as follows: 

Your Suggestion: email it to us, put suggested book (or film) review in subject line and click here