Reading “The Art of Scientific Investigation”

12 Feb


I was wandering around the University Bookstore and found a stack of “The Art of Scientific Investigation” on the bargain table (was probably a textbook for a course in the past). It is written in the 1950s by William Beveridge, an animal pathologist who worked on the influenza virus.

What really intrigued me was what he said in the preface,

Elaborate apparatus plays an important part in the science of to-day, but I sometimes wonder if we are not inclined to forget that the most important instrument in research must always be the mind of man.

My sentiment is that a lot of the focus on science these days is on expensive machinery and “big data” – while these no doubt support the advancement of modern science, it is ONLY when they complement originality and creativity that they can amount to something. And it is because of what he wrote in the preface that made me buy the book.

There are two main reasons why I want to read this:

  • Do we know better about how science is conducted now compared to that 60 years ago?
  • Are there lessons that we forgot from back in the days, lessons that might be useful even in the modern society?

I am at page 4 right now but I am really excited! Already I can see many ideas relevant to scientific research today.

On broadening one’s knowledge beyond one’s own and discoveries made by “outsiders” of a specific scientific field (or even science as a whole):

Ignorance and freedom from established patterns of thought in one field were joined with knowledge and training in other fields.


Thus in subjects in which knowledge is still growing, or where the particular problem is a new one, or a new version of one already solved, all the advantage is with the expert, but where knowledge is no longer growing and the field has been worked out, a revolutionary new approach is required and this is more likely to come from the outsider.

This actually reminds me a lot about citizen science projects, about how involving the general public who might not be in the habit of practicing science can contribute to new thoughts and ideas in science.

And then on reading scientific papers:

One of the most common mistakes of the young scientist starting research is that he believes all he reads and does not distinguish between the results of the experiments reported and the author’s interpretation of them.

With scientific knowledge being quite accessible today, perhaps this apply to more than just scientists and scientific research? It’s so easy to simply take in all that produced by mass media without asking questions – but perhaps we should encourage all to think critically?

Anyways, it is still too early for me to evaluate the book, but so far so good 😀 I will be reading this book and reporting interesting ideas from the book along the way. If you are interested in reading it (and share your thoughts!), you can find the digital copy of the book at the  the Internet Archive (granted, according to a review by Brain Pickings, the web html version was a digitized poorly and contains many errors, so pdf might be the better option).

*By the way, it’s Charles Darwin’s Birthday!


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