About Method: Experimenters, Snake Venom, and the History of Writing Scientifically, by Jutta Schickore

A study of snakebite gives a good overview of the development of the written scientific method, says Geoffrey Cantor

August 17, 2017
Great Lakes Bush Viper
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In his stimulating book Against Method (1975), the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend attacked the idea of a single, unchanging scientific method. Instead, he argued that “anything goes”, illustrating this challenging assertion with the example of Galileo, who broke with the methodological rules of his day and rewrote the methods of science. Jutta Schickore’s About Method seeks to rescue methodology from Feyerabend’s more radical views by showing that, while scientific methodologies change, they play a crucial role in directing the practice of science. Her examples are informative and are firmly grounded in their historical contexts.

Schickore’s study of the methods of science covers a potentially large and diverse range of texts, arguments and practical procedures. These include scientists’ general statements about the value of experimentation, together with directives about how experiments should be performed. One example is Felice Fontana’s advice “to multiply the experiments exceedingly”, which resulted in his weighty, two-volume Treatise on the Venom of a Viper (1787), filled with numerous diverse and very detailed experiments on the effects of snakebite on different creatures. Methodology also includes the protocols that scientists adopt in performing experiments, such as the need to maintain constant pressure and temperature throughout a specific procedure.

Schickore extends her discussion of scientists’ methodological views and the protocols of experiment to include a number of related topics, such as the institutional context of research and didactic texts specifying how scientific papers should be written. This broad sweep of subjects sometimes creates an uneven narrative and detracts from the book’s argument.

The central focus of About Method is the methodological views and practices of researchers studying snakebite. Schickore starts with the controversy evoked by the publication of Francesco Redi’s Observations on Vipers (1664). Experiment was then a new and raw feature of science, leading Redi and his opponents to argue over its proper use. Venom research was also informed and transformed by theories and methods drawn from other areas of science. Thus Fontana used Albrecht von Haller’s notions of “irritability” and “sensibility” in his account of the action of venom on its targets.

By the late 19th century the pace of venom research had increased markedly and America became its major locus. Researchers drew on the concepts and protocols of other fields, most notably bacteriology and immunology. This trend increased during the first half of the 20th century with the search for the toxic components of venom becoming subsumed within the broader nexus of biochemical and biomedical research. Discussion of methods remained a crucial focus of these sciences as experiments became far more complex and utilised sophisticated equipment. In her penultimate chapter Schickore provides a rich and helpful overview of 20th-century studies of toxins.

One of the book’s recurrent topics is the way in which experiments were reported and discussed in print. Despite her emphasis on scientific writing as “an effective means of presentation and persuasion”, Schickore’s discussion is limited to the printed word and no cognisance is taken of the illustrations that were produced by the scientists she discusses. The absence of visual information significantly limits the reader’s ability to appreciate the experimental procedures under discussion.

Geoffrey Cantor is professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Leeds.

About Method: Experimenters, Snake Venom, and the History of Writing Scientifically
By Jutta Schickore
University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £37.50
ISBN 9780226449982 and 9780226450049 (e-book)
Published 12 June 2017

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