'Everyday Practice of Science' demystified in Grinnell book

By Amanda Siegfried

Ethical issues under debate in social, legal and political circles have put contemporary science under an increasingly public microscope with the result that there is a broad misconception about how science is done.

Dr. Fred Grinnell, professor of cell biology, has tried to clear up some of those misconceptions with his book, Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic. In the book, Dr. Grinnell introduces readers to the real-world practice of science.

His premise is simple: Scientific facts can be so complicated that only specialists in a field will fully appreciate the details. But the nature of everyday practice that gives rise to these facts can — and should — be understandable to anyone interested in science or in science and health policy decisions.

Dr. Fred Grinnell, author of Everyday Practice of Science and professor of cell biology

“This book is not meant as a guide for how to do science,” Dr. Grinnell said. “It’s more about helping people understand that the scientific enterprise is much more than doing research. It’s many other things as well.”

The first half of the book describes how scientific research is carried out and how claims about new discoveries are validated. The second half explores the interaction of science with other facets of society, including implications for science policy decisions, ethics in human research, and the relationship between science and faith.

Dr. Grinnell has devoted more than 30 years to scientific research, investigating the reciprocal interactions between cells and their three-dimensional extracellular environment. His work in the philosophy of science also dates back decades — in 1978 he began teaching a seminar on the topic to UT Southwestern graduate students. Twenty years later he founded the Ethics in Science and Medicine Program to help promote ethics educational activities on campus and in the community.

That program has given rise to a number of initiatives over the years, including the Medical Humanities Interest Group, for medical students; the North Texas Bioethics Network; a humanities writing competition for medical and graduate students; and Ethics Grand Rounds.

Dr. Grinnell said that in writing Everyday Practice of Science, he hoped to help science educators and those who formulate policy about science to understand aspects of doing science such as:

  • Why it takes so long to develop new drugs or treatments, and
  • Why different research studies on the same topic sometimes lead to conflicting results.

Another goal was to convey how much time, effort and even failure are involved in the scientific process, as well as the excitement and adventure that often take place behind the headlines.

“If you tell a student to remember that prion diseases are caused by abnormally folded proteins that can spread from one organism to another, then that is an important scientific fact, but not by itself very exciting,” Dr. Grinnell explained. “But if you learn about the history of how prion diseases were discovered and the people and controversies involved, then science becomes an adventure.

“As scientists, in general, we’re not very good at explaining to the public what we do. Without an understanding of the practice of science, I think you lose all the excitement. The theme of this book, that science is serious play, is really meant to try to influence and engage nonscientists in the process and the challenges.”

Everyday Practice of Science was published in English in January by Oxford University Press and more recently in Japanese by Kyoritsu.