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A laborious examination of the evolution of the bacterial theory of peptic ulcers, pointing more generally to how scientific theories evolve. Thagard (Philosophy/Univ. Of Waterloo, Canada) begins by arguing against a traditional view of scientists as individuals conducting objective experiments with no presupposed outcome. The “postmodern view” of scientists trying to prove a hypothesis that will be most beneficial to them (“largely a matter of politics”) is similarly too simplistic. Thagard interlaces general arguments about the nature of scientists and scientific research with specific details of several scientific theories, such as headline-provoking conditions like “mad cow” disease and chronic fatigue syndrome. In the meat of the book, the author discusses diseases such as scurvy and his benchmark case, the bacterial theory of ulcers. The history of this theory is elaborated in some detail—we learn, among other things, that one of the reseachers swallowed a live culture of the bacteria to prove his point. Thagard’s general discussions of scientific research schemas include many flow-chart-like diagrams that demonstrate possible cause-and-effect relationships, such as how social and psychological explanations of science relate to the science itself. The book tries too hard to explain itself, plodding through each theory step by step, even giving some arguments in outline form. This poor writing tends to obfuscate matters rather than simplify them. Thagard’s treatment of complex equations showing causal probabilities, for example, concludes with the obtuse statement that “causal reasoning requires the abductive inference that a factor has the power to produce an effect.” Once deciphered, this is hardly a profound point. At its best, an engaging description of mysterious diseases past and present, but the book gets bogged down in flow charts, outlines, and equations that will leave the casual reader more frustrated than enlightened. (33 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-691-00261-4
Page count: 268pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999