Writing plans and request for suggestions

As I said in the note about my retirement, I am now planning on becoming a full-time writer. So the question naturally arises as to what I am going to be writing about and what impact this will have on my blogging.

My first major writing project is going to a book about the nature of scientific knowledge. It will address the question of how we decide in science what is true and what is false or even if those words are applicable to scientific knowledge. Science is undoubtedly a very powerful and successful enterprise but what makes it so? The book will be aimed at the general public and try to clarify many of the misconceptions that surround these questions and attempt to counter the efforts by some to exploit those misconceptions to further narrow agendas that go against the public good.

These are questions that I have thought about a lot over the past decades and written about quite extensively, and indeed was the topic of my first book. But my thinking has evolved considerably since that first book (which I now find unsatisfactory) and I think I have something new to say. The book will span the history and philosophy and logic of science. It will naturally touch on the role of science vis a vis religion but that will not be its main focus.

I know that readers of this blog are very knowledgeable in these areas and I would welcome any suggestions for reading material. Basically, are there any books or articles that you think I must read if I am not to have overlooked some major development? Do not be concerned as to whether I am already familiar with it. Just list any books or articles whose absence in the bibliography would make you think my knowledge was incomplete.

As to the impact of retirement on my blog, that is hard to say right now. On the one hand, I have more time to write. On the other hand, writing is not something that can be done for hours on end. There seems to be just so much writing that one can do in a day and I will have to reserve most of my creative writing time for the book. So my plan is to begin each day with a few hours of book writing. Blogging will have to play second fiddle, to be done when I feel that I need a break from the book. How that will play out in terms of output will have to be seen though I hope to maintain the current level.

So please make your suggestions! And thanks.


  1. Bruce says

    Hi, Mano. While I’m sure you’d do it anyway, please let your book do a bit near the front to contrast science versus math. Many non-science people assume they work the same. In math, one starts by defining a number line for counting, and making some postulates. They then derive”proofs” from these. Non-scientists assume this is a model for science, wrongly. Of course, in science, the idea of proof is misplaced.
    But when scientists talk with others, how should we speak? If one is asked about elves, the only correct answer (for the ears of society) is to say “no”, without any talk of 95% confidence. If one is on a murder jury, or debating public policy with the paper’s editors, a more detailed and nuanced honesty may be permitted. But it seems rare that scientific awareness is allowed in normal discussions outside of academia. So, where is the line drawn? And how can the line be invoked when needed in discussions with normal people? Analogies with math make this communication harder, not easier. Thanks.

  2. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Just a general note: I don’t know how active your life was before retirement, but staying home and writing will likely be a lot more sedentary, and that is bad for your health. Establish a fixed routine that includes some mandatory, daily aerobic exercise, even if only walking. Your mind will benefit as much as your body because you can use the exercising time to think.

  3. says

    If you’re not familiar with Cisko’s “without miracles” I recommend reading it after reading and absorbing “history of skepticism” by Popkin. Popkin is critical if you want to tackle the question of basis for knowledge.

  4. says

    Addendum to #3: I’d be nauseated to see yet another probabalistic argument for basis of knowledgment (e.g.: retread bayesianism) But I don’t expect you to defeat Sextus Empiricus against induction. That’s a hard problem! Empirical induction, uh, aigh, argh.

  5. flex says

    I wouldn’t want to be presumptuous, and not being a science educator the things I can bring to the table are largely popularizations, but there are a few things which have revised my view of science (as an endeavor) over the years. You also are probably aware of them already.

    Connections, by James Burke. The first series (which I own on DVD and still regularly watch), has an over-arching message about why learning the history of science is important in today’s world. The subsequent series were not as well done, in my opinion, and seemed to be more about how neat scientific development is, rather than how it impacted the world. I say the same thing about his series The Day the Universe Changed as well. Connections was the first and a lot of time was spent to get the message correct. (And if you can’t find the series, the book of the show is pretty good to.)

    I enjoyed The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow. It’s more of a biography than history, but it’s about five people who both were curious about science (and approached it rationally) and applied what they learned. The men were Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, Matthew Bolton, and Joseph Priestly. The names are probably all familiar, but I didn’t know that they were all acquaintances until I read this book.

    I’ve got a few dozen more like these on my shelves. Some of them I keep for the prose, even if the facts are outdated. The 4-volume Outline of Science by J. Arthur Thomson written 1922 is enjoyable reading, and has lots of pretty illustrations, but is a bit out-of-date (read wrong in quite a few particulars). It does give an accurate overview of how tides work which even Bill O’Reilly could understand. It is available on Project Gutenberg if you want to take a look.

    I think I’ve got a complete set of Gould’s essays, and most of his books, but his writings are so recent that I suspect that most people interested in natural history have them.

    A great many of the popularization of science books are, frankly, garbage. I’ve tried a couple of Bill Byson’s books on science, and while I’ll admit he can write, he seems to accentuate the obvious rather than delve into the mysteries.

    I do recommend, not from a science perspective, but from a historian’s perspective, reading Marc Bloch’s The Historians Craft. It changed my view of how history is created. I don’t mean what happened historically, but how historian’s pick and choose which parts of history to accentuate. After all, we don’t all have the time to personally research, say, Henry Ford’s personal beliefs. But what we get as a summary from historians who do take the time is necessarily incomplete. So we don’t get a picture of the whole person, only a sketch (at best) of the features the author chooses as important. Even the best biographies are simply an overview. This book brought me a greater understanding of Menkin’s comment about Woodrow Wilson retiring to teach ‘bad’ history, because all history is necessarily incomplete.

    But again, as an experienced educator, you are probably familiar with all of these.

    Good luck on your endeavor.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Though hardly a I-can’t-believe-they-left-this-out level item, I recommend Evan S. Connell’s collection of erudite essays on science in history The White Lantern. His The Long Desire (which I have yet to read), though focusing more on explorers than scientists as such, has also earned a round of accolades from critics.

  7. Carl Fink says

    I’m certain you’re already familiar with it, but the must-read title that comes immediately to mind is Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.

  8. Henry Gale says

    If the audience is the general public I think some time should be spent early on explaining what it means when a scientist says they “know” something and why that may change with new information.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Bruce @#1 and Henry @#8

    I am definitely planning to write about the similarities and differences between math and science and the way that the word ‘proof’ is used and its meaning and what we mean when we say we ‘know’ something.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Just an … @#2,

    Alas, my life was pretty sedentary before retirement and will likely continue to be so after! Part of it is due to limited levels of mobility due to polio, part of it is due to laziness!

  11. Mano Singham says

    Marcus @#3 and #4, flex @#5, Pierce @#6, Carl @#7

    Thanks for the book suggestions. Marcus, I will be dealing with the issue of probabilistic arguments.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    I suggest you model your next book after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind by Chuck Barris. In this “unauthorized autobiography,” Barris claimed that when he wasn’t producing TV shows like The Gong Show, he worked as an assassin for the CIA.

  13. Reginald Selkirk says

    #10: Part of it is due to limited levels of mobility due to polio

    The basis for a pro-vaccine chapter.

  14. Bruce says

    For background on the philosophy of knowledge, I think it is useful to review the comments of the British philosopher AC Grayling, especially as expressed in his 40-minute interview here.
    Search on YouTube for this video:
    Atheist Debates -- Interview: AC Grayling, DPhil
    by Matt Dillahunty

  15. StevoR says

    Some readingand viewing suggestions for you here :


    if you’d like them Mano Singham albeit on an issue where I know we disagree strongly. But if you’re willing to listen to the other side of this issue and give it a fair hearing which I wish you (& others) would please.

    Also anything by Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan and Dava Sobel if you haven’t read and enjoyed already -- my favourite authors.

    Plus Greg Laden’s blog and some of his suggestions for reading on a variety of topics.

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