cover image The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science

The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science

Michael Strevens. Liveright, $30 (352) ISBN 978-1-63149-137-5

Strevens (Thinking Off Your Feet), an NYU philosophy professor, takes a scholarly look at how modern science arose with this erudite study. He begins by examining impactful explanations for the scientific method’s success, chiefly Karl Popper’s position that science is defined by a rigorous commitment to finding evidence opposed to, as well as in support of, one’s own theories, and Thomas Kuhn’s idea of scientific paradigms, or culturally dominant theories which scientists gain intellectual clout by subscribing to. After pointing out these arguments’ flaws, he outlines his own “Iron Rule of Explanation,” which sees “empirical testing” as science’s defining principle. While modern scientists are still susceptible to error and bias, Strevens writes, the iron rule sets hard data as the foundation of their theories, and this sets their work apart from the ancient and middle ages’—often quite ingenious but less practically useful—natural philosophy. Strevens supports his arguments with historical examples, like Arthur Eddington’s 1919 eclipse viewing intended to substantiate Einstein’s theory of general relativity; he notes that Eddington took great care in the collection of data, but not, contrary to Popper, in considering contradictory or ambiguous evidence, nor, contrary to Kuhn, in adhering to previously established scientific consensus. For readers curious about why science works as well as it does, Strevens provides a convincing answer. (Oct.)