The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

An Unauthorized Autobiography of Science

published December 2007
Journal article explanations of how science
works often differ from the actual process
magazine cover

According to 55 percent of 350,000 people from 70 countries who participated online in Richard Wiseman’s Laugh Lab experiment (discussed in last month’s column), this is the world’s funniest joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”

So say the data, but according to Wiseman’s personal narrative describing how the research was actually conducted (in his new book Quirkology), he believes that “we uncovered the world’s blandest joke — the gag that makes everyone smile but very few laugh out loud. But as with so many quests, the journey was far more important than the destination. Along the way we looked at what makes us laugh, how laughter can make you live longer, how humor should unite different nations, and we discovered the world’s funniest comedy animal.” Chickens notwithstanding, such first-person accounts in popular science books that include the journey and not just the destination afford readers a glimpse into how science is really carried out.

Formal science writing — what I call the “narrative of explanation” — presents a neat and tidy step-by-step process of Introduction- Methods-Results-Discussion, grounded in a nonexistent “scientific method” of Observation- Hypothesis-Prediction- Experiment followed in a linear fashion. This type of science writing is like autobiography, and as the comedian Stephen Wright said, “I’m writing an unauthorized autobiography.” Any other kind is fiction. Formal science writing is like Whiggish history — the conclusion draws the explanation toward it, forcing facts and events to fall neatly into a causal chain where the final outcome is an inevitable result of a logical and inevitable sequence.

Informal science writing — what I call the “narrative of practice” — presents the actual course of science as it is interwoven with periodic insights and subjective intuitions, random guesses and fortuitous findings. Science, like life, is messy and haphazard, full of quirky contingencies, unexpected bifurcations, serendipitous discoveries, unanticipated encounters and unpredictable outcomes. This chaotic process helps to explain, in part, the phenomenal success in recent decades of first-person popular accounts by scientists of how they actually did their research. The effect is especially noteworthy in works exploring the peculiarities of life.

Steven Levitt’s and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics (William Morrow, 2006) illuminates the power of incentives through certain oddities. For instance, that most drug dealers live with their mothers because only the top guys make the big bucks while the rest bide their time and pay their dues or that baby names tell us about the motives of parents. Cornell University professor Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas (Basic, 2007) employs the principle of costbenefit analysis to explain such idiosyncrasies as why drive-up ATM keypads have Braille dots (because it is cheaper to make the same machine for both drive-up and walk-up locations), why brown eggs are more expensive than white eggs (because there is less demand and the hens that lay them are larger and consume more food), why it is harder to find a taxi in the rain (because more people use them when it is raining, most cabbies reach their fare goals earlier in the day), and why milk is stored in rectangular cartons but soft drinks come in round cans (because it is handier to drink soda directly from a round can but easier to pour and store milk in a rectangular carton).

In my October column I railed against the artificial (and odious) ranking of technical science writing over popular science writing. I suggested that the latter should be elevated to a more exalted standing of “integrative science,” where good science writing integrates data, theory and narrative into a useful and compelling work. Here I add that exploring the minutiae of life, especially on the quirky borderlands of science, makes the scientific process more accessible to everyone. Where a narrative of explanation might read something like “the data lead me to conclude…,” a narrative of practice reads more like “Huh, that’s weird…”

Weirdness trumps data in the biography of science.

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11 Comments to “An Unauthorized Autobiography of Science”

  1. Keith Carmichael Says:

    As an engineer, I believe the reason for round (cylindrical) soft drink cans is to contain the pressure due to carbonation while using the least aluminum wall thickness. This also accounts for the indented shape of the can bottom.


  2. John MacDonald Says:

    As a consumer of beverages sold in round cans, I believe the reason for round (cylindrical) soft drink cans is because rectangular cartons would not roll through vending machines. Pressure due to carbonation may be a factor but it occurs to me that, unlike scuba tanks, a typical soft drink can does not contain enough pressure, even when shaken, to require a round shape. Sometimes the simple answer is right. ;-)

  3. Al Lowi Says:

    The point is that the scientific method (whatever it is) is the way of life for all humans regardless of status or academic preparation. The scientific method might be evolutionary compensation for the evolutionary loss of acute instinct.

  4. Bobster Says:

    Soda is expected to last for a goodly amount of time. Therefore it must be stored in containers that can be sealed and that will withstand the pressure of carbonation. Larger (2 L) plastic containers meet this requirement. Until recently though, it has been uneconomical to manufacture smaller containers from these polycarbonate plastics. Also, plasticizers leach from the polycarbonate plastic into the drink – especially when the drink is acidic. I suspect (I don’t know this for sure) that the amount of plasticizer that gets into the drink is acceptable with larger bottles than it would be with smaller ones – the square/cube rule, remember?

    The process for making aluminum cans is fairly straightforward. A large roll of aluminum is passed through a press. The press punches out “blanks” of aluminum that are somewhat larger than the diameter of the finished can. These blanks are stacked and passed through another press that, in one operation, “draws” the blanks into the can body. Both of these presses are fairly simple mechanical devices. And they work fast.

    Plastic bottles, on the other hand, are made by a process called “injection molding”. It isn’t very fast, being limited by the physical characteristics of the plastic, and the machinery is expensive and complicated. So, while the plastic bottles might be economical when it’s large, it isn’t when the bottle is small. I know, water is sold in small plastic bottles, but consider: (1) the liquid isn’t acidic and (2) look at how much they charge for 12 oz of water!

  5. John Says:

    Not to be disagreeable but I suspect that very few people employ anything resembling the scientific method in their daily life. – in fact, most people avoid critical thinking when they have to make a decision (with making ‘pro and con’ lists about as advanced as it usually gets). People are not as rational as we’d like to think.

    Micheal Shermer’s recently published book addesses this.

  6. Chester Graham Says:

    The Braille dots on ATM keypads are not there for the drivers, but for their guide dogs. The banks would be irresponsible to encourage guide dogs to drive, as most cars do not have Braille controls.
    Brown eggs are more expensive than white eggs because of transport costs. Brown eggs are heavier than white eggs, owing to their longer DNA. Despite the greater demand for white eggs, which are sleeker, and faster in their progress toward the fan, they are seen as more refined and generally nicer to know, as is the case with tea, people, and crows.
    It is harder to find a taxi in the rain because of the rain; it makes things harder to see, as the way ahead, the rain check at the sports ground, or your glasses. In the rain, taxis are easy to find all over the freeway, which has unobstructed sight lines and better drains.
    Milk is stored in rectangular cartons because pyramids do not fit in refrigerator doors. Further, should the refrigerator light fail, the point of a pyramid, with no space for a Braille warning, could damage human tissue, causing costly litigation with the estate of the late Sadi Carnot.
    Soft drinks come in round cans because they have round bubbles, which prismatic packaging would disfigure. The round profile allows circulation of ambient cold in the refrigerator, essential to an aerated drink. The cylindrical shape is designed to crumple under pressure when squeezed by a macho force, as an engineer.
    – Chester Graham
    Extraordinary ’Pataphysical Fellow
    Outre-Mer’ IX

  7. Walter Gilman Says:

    Bobster, plastic soda bottles are made by a process called “blow molding” which is quite fast and relatively inexpensive.

    “The production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) led to the viability of reheat stretch blow molding. The strain hardening properties of PET allowed the high volume production of bottles able to resist the carbonation pressure in soft drink applications. The high clarity and economics of PET stretch blow molding have made this a popular production method for bottles for water, detergents, and other products.”

  8. Tony King Says:

    Goddaoomnit, Michael- you’ve done it again!
    Drawn me into another idiot “Why is it…” controversy.

    Quick answer: It’s easier to stack cartons to be refrigerated and shipped in SQUARE containers.
    Hint: Think “Gin” ..which I drinkin right now.

    So let’s take that cheap plastic that “Shermer’s Sugar Water” comes in and make them square! Wow!
    OK – 1. It’s difficult to make square plastic and Aluminium containers, and more importantly:
    2. How would the thin corners of those PRESSURIZED rectangular containers withstand the pressure?
    Umm… not at all.
    Ever seen a square NASA space rocket?
    Geez, guys… go back to your f…n slide-rules! (While I go back to my gin- actually it’s Rum- and I’m in Bathsheba Barbados, hopelessly lost)

    Damn! I got suckered in again!
    For SHAME, Michael Shermer!

  9. Tony King Says:

    And kudos to the kook Chester Graham above.
    Had I read his eloquent answer before replying, I would have relaxed, and would have not been so anxious to put people… NO! YOU ANAL-RETENTIVE ENGINEERS! – straight.
    But then, I might have feebly attempted to outdo his excellent explanation and failed most miserably.
    Grrr… guys, get a life! Take those sliderul.. uhh Graphic Calculators and put ’em where only Neutrinos intrude!
    (OK, so I’m on my fifth rum’n’mangopangu -whatever – juice now)

  10. jamie hale Says:

    I think very few people in society use the scientific method when attempting to gain knowledge. This requires too much thinking. Lack of critcial thinking is the norm.

    If everyone learned and utilized the scientific method in everyday life many companies and pseudoscience perpetuators would be out of business.

    Jamie Hale

  11. Rick Says:

    It’s about economic or social incentives for the most part.