An Instinct for Truth: a new book by BEACON co-founder Robert T. Pennock

Book cover for An Instinct for TruthRobert T. Pennock, a BEACON co-founder and co-PI, has just published a new book. An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science is an exploration of the scientific mindset—such character virtues as curiosity, veracity, attentiveness, and humility to evidence—and its importance for science, democracy, and human flourishing.

The title comes from a quote from Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to a scientist colleague that “I believe there exists, & I feel within me, an instinct for truth, or knowledge or discovery, of something of the same nature as the instinct of virtue…”

Some of the research for the book was supported by BEACON. An Instinct for Truth provides the philosophical basis for the Scientific Virtues Toolbox responsible conduct of research (RCR) workshops that Pennock and colleagues developed for BEACON. They are now running virtue-based RCR workshops for various departments across campus and plan to expand nationally.

Pennock is also applying this scientific virtue-based approach to try to improve STEM education, arguing for the importance of teaching the values that comprise the scientific mindset. Software like Avida-ED and Salmon Run help teach evolution but they also are evolutionary playgrounds where students can exercise their scientific curiosity.

Robert T. Pennock is a Distinguished Professor at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, with appointments in the departments of Philosophy and Computer Science & Engineering. In addition to BEACON, Pennock is affiliated with MSU”s Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior (EEBB) program and Socially Engaged Philosophy of Science (SEPOS).

The book is published by MIT Press. Below is the book overview from the publisher’s website:

Exemplary scientists have a characteristic way of viewing the world and their work: their mindset and methods all aim at discovering truths about nature. In An Instinct for Truth, Robert Pennock explores this scientific mindset and argues that what Charles Darwin called “an instinct for truth, knowledge, and discovery” has a tacit moral structure—that it is important not only for scientific excellence and integrity but also for democracy and human flourishing. In an era of “post-truth,” the scientific drive to discover empirical truths has a special value.

Taking a virtue-theoretic perspective, Pennock explores curiosity, veracity, skepticism, humility to evidence, and other scientific virtues and vices. He explains that curiosity is the most distinctive element of the scientific character, by which other norms are shaped; discusses the passionate nature of scientific attentiveness; and calls for science education not only to teach scientific findings and methods but also to nurture the scientific mindset and its core values.

Drawing on historical sources as well as a sociological study of more than a thousand scientists, Pennock’s philosophical account is grounded in values that scientists themselves recognize they should aspire to. Pennock argues that epistemic and ethical values are normatively interconnected, and that for science and society to flourish, we need not just a philosophy of science, but a philosophy of the scientist.

“In An Instinct for Truth, a wide-ranging volume on philosophical, historical, religious and sociological aspects of the scientific vocation, Robert T. Pennock shows that not only is curiosity a powerful motivator in the drive for reliable knowledge, it also, if guided by a virtuous scientist, leads to socially beneficial outcomes. Any practicing scientist or student of science can benefit from Pennock’s observations about why we do science, or more, how to do science right.” — Rush D. Holt, CEO and Executive Publisher, American Association for the Advancement of Science

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