Monday, February 20, 2012

The role of textbooks in biology

"Hey, this is textbook knowledge, you should know that!"

This is what I would be told, if I were to ask a stupid question about microbiology in the laboratory. (And for the record, I believe that such things as "stupid questions" do in fact exist.) 

"Textbook knowledge" is often used to define the core knowledge that a biologist (or any scientist, as far as I can tell) should possess as a result of her education. When I was an undergraduate biology student, we used to talk about "the Campbell" and "the Alberts" to refer to our textbooks of general biology and molecular biology, respectively, and today I talk of "the Brock" to mention a reference textbook in microbiology. Textbooks are not only useful to students; personally, I often find relevant information in them, although most of my readings are scientific papers. 

A textbook should provide you with the background knowledge sufficient to operate in the current state of your discipline. (Although, of course, some will be more general or conversely will be more specific than others, depending on their goals.) 

The University of Chicago Press (Image source)
The reason I want to write about textbooks here is a consequence of my reading of "The structure of scientific revolutions" (1962), the landmark book by science philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Together with Popper, Kuhn is among the most famous philosophers of science: he coined the term "paradigm shift", which is not only a fascinating concept, but also a very catchy idea. Scientists like to use it often and in many different contexts. (Probably too often in my opinion, since paradigm shifts do not take place that frequentlyif they take place at all.) 

Kuhn's book is an excellent read because it is rather concise (my edition is about 200 pages, with a 30 pages postscript) and almost devoid of jargon, which makes it very engaging. My only regret was maybe that I felt I already knew too much of it, since Kuhn's ideas have been widely explained and discussed. For instance, I remember reading a very good recapitulation of Kuhn's theses in a French translation of Alan Chalmers' book "What is that thing called science?". Nonetheless, a lot of fascinating details were still to be found.

I won't discuss the general ideas of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, since detailed accounts can be found elsewhere. For instance, in the Wikipedia page about the book. I also read a very interesting post about Kuhn on the blog of Julia Bursten, a philosopher. 

But let's go back to textbooks. Here's what Kuhn has to say, pp.137-138:
"Characteristically, textbooks of science contain just a bit of history, either in an introductory chapter or, more often, in scattered references to the great heroes of an earlier age. From such references both students and professionals come to feel like participants in a long-standing historical tradition. Yet the textbook-derived tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed. For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks […] refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the texts' paradigm problems. […] No wonder that textbooks and the historical tradition they imply have to be rewritten after each scientific revolution."
Thus, Kuhn thinks textbooks are meant to fit the current "normal" science (as opposed to the revolutionary science). I agree that textbooks reconstruct a timeline that is coherent, which mean they may emphasize certain moments and neglect others in the history of the discipline. But is there really a way to do it differently? Perhaps, but then the result may not be a "textbook" anymore, at least the way I understand it. Another possibility is to consider only the original works. About this Kuhn wrote, p. 165:
"Why, after all, should the student of physics, for example, read the works of Newton, Faraday, Einstein, or Schrödinger, when everything he needs to know about these works is recapitulated in a far briefer, more precise, and more systematic form in a number of up-to-date textbooks?
Without wishing to defend the excessive lengths to which this type of education has occasionally been carried, one cannot help but notice that in general it has been immensely effective."
In microbiology education as well, it is rare that ancient works are studied directly. Personally, I never had to read Pasteur's or Koch's original papers. And it is probably a pity, since reading ancient scientific work is not interesting only from an historian perspective, but also to highlight the way they thought and tested their ideas. 

ASM Press
Thanks to this digital age, many original papers can now be found as e-versions. In addition, a very nice collection of original microbiology papers edited and translated in English can be found in the book of Thomas Brock (the one of the "Brock Biology of Microorganisms") entitled "Milestones in microbiology" and republished by ASM Press. In his preface, Brock wrote:
"There was a time when most microbiologists were acquainted with many of the papers presented here. But present generations are less likely to read any of the articles which form the foundations of the science. Although the history of microbiology is always treated in introductory texts, there is little opportunity for the student to become aware of just what scientists such as Leeuwenhoek, Pasteur, and Koch really did. To a great extent, microbiology is taught as a body of preexisting facts, and the student is not aware of the way in which current theories have developed out of the past."
I suppose Kuhn would be the first to agree with that.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Second edition. The University of Chicago Press.
Brock, Thomas D. (1999). Milestones in microbiology, 1546 to 1940. ASM Press.

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