3 min read

The Best Book No One Has Read

It's bad when academics don't even read your book.

Alistair Crombie's magnum opus, "Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition: The History of Argument and Explanation Especially in the Mathematical and Biomedical Sciences and Arts" describes scientific work not in terms of methods or paradigms or logic, but in terms of different argumentative traditions that develop – both together and separately – to form modern scientific thinking. It is probably the most detailed study of scientific argument that exists.

I say "probably" because I have not read it. And, apparently, no one else has either. The philosopher who continued to develop Crombie's central thesis, Ian Hacking, frankly admits as much: "Interspersed in [Crombie's volume] are many wise observations, but no one will ever read the... three volumes... in their entirety."

So, a meticulous, ambitious, and celebrated scholar creates – again, presumably – a work full of insights and details that... no one reads. Or rather, one where people read enough to get the basic gist and move on.

This is knowledge transformation of a sort. Hacking and others have (hopefully) boiled Crombie's claims down to their essence, and moved the conversation forward. But, in principle, scientists want to be able to see the provenance of knowledge claims. Without this provenance – without the data, without the steps that lead to a particular interpretation – the claim is open to question, or at least mis-evaluation. Perhaps Crombie's evidence is very strong. Or perhaps it is very weak. But if its not laid open for future detailed examination, it's hard to say.

Nevertheless, Hacking makes strong arguments for the "Styles" perspective. That, over the course of history, a "laboratory style" of science emerged that leveraged instruments and controlled experiments to make knowledge claims. That geology and phylogeny belong to the "historical" style: gather "cases" or "instances," categorize them, and create models of change over time. That, at times, styles blend together: the modern, stereotypical scientist practices a blend of laboratory and mathematical (statistical) styles. And, occasionally, styles conflict: witness "wet lab" and "dry lab" (or "big data") styles in the biological sciences. Both push the science forward. But they do so not just through different methods, but different ways of thinking about what counts as "evidence," about what the interesting questions actually are, and about what the real objects of inquiry are.

Plenty of work substantiates Crombie's thesis. Nevertheless, many of his ideas are still bottled up in rare and unwieldy volumes that meet certain principles of scientific work (e.g., meticulousness) while, at the same time, are at odds with the practicalities of modern science (no one has time to read the damn thing and we gotta publish something!).

Crombie's work, of course, isn't the most grievous example of knowledge being bottled up and squirreled away. The bulk of scientific work is inaccessible to the public – both literally (because it's behind outrageously expensive paywalls) and figuratively (because it still may be unintelligible or misinterpreted, even when accessed). The fate of most research articles is obscurity. And many articles even deserve that fate.

The Scientific Revolution changed the way European intellectuals thought about knowledge. For generations upon generations, knowledge came from the past. It was bottled up in old books. In Aristotle. In Euclid. In the Bible. And it was the job of the intellectual to crack those old words open to find new wisdom. The idea that modern people could create knowledge – new knowledge that no one had ever dreamed of before – was astonishing.

But in our rush to speed forward, I wonder about the gems we have left behind. How many books and articles are there now, that have something valuable to contribute, but are no longer part of the conversation? I suspect that poring over the old is as likely to yield insight as keeping up with the new.

Incidentally, on my wish list for when I have $1000 to spare is a copy of "Styles". Just to spite Ian Hacking, I'm going to read all those volumes. And then perpetuate the cycle by keeping all of those wise observations to myself.


Crombie, A. C. (1995). Styles of scientific thinking in the European tradition: The history of argument and explanation especially in the mathematical and biomedical sciences and arts.

Here is where the quote from Hacking comes from:

Hacking, I. (2012). ‘Language, truth and reason’30 years later. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 43(4), 599-609.

But if you want to read a more direct summary of the "Styles" project, try to get your hands on a copy of: Hacking, I. (1992). ‘Style’ for historians and philosophers. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 23(1), 1-20.

It's hard to go wrong reading Ian Hacking – he's a wise and patient thinker.

On the "wet lab" vs "dry lab" styles in modern biology, see: Penders, B., Horstman, K., & Vos, R. (2008). Walking the line between lab and computation: The “moist” zone. BioScience, 58(8), 747-755. Currently available here.