Assignment: Case Histories

Learning Goals

The purpose of this assignment is for you to investigate and analyze the structure and approach of a discipline, and a field of inquiry within that discipline, in the natural or social sciences. Our aim, in the course of this investigation, is to capture something of the forces driving scientific research.

The assignment's learning goals:

• Investigate the practices of a selected area of scientific inquiry;
• Develop a means to study science from the perspective of an interested lay person;
• Consider the role of ignorance in science.

Initial Approach

You will write a case history of a specific area of interest in the natural or social sciences. Models for your case history can be found in Chapter 7 of Stuart Firestein's Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Firestein offers that "... you, that is the lay person, the reader, can understand an awful lot of science by focusing on the ignorance instead of the facts. Not ignoring the facts, just not focusing on them" (87-88). In this assignment, we will take the concept of ignorance — ignorance understood as "the absence of fact, understanding, insight or clarity about something ... where data don't make sense, don't add up to a coherent explanation, cannot be used to make a prediction or a statement about some thing or event" (6-7) — as a basis for exploring an area of interest in either the natural or social sciences.

Choose an area of interest in either the natural sciences or social sciences. To help you trace areas of interest, Wikipedia lends an overview of natural science and of social science, and provides an outline of social science and a detailed list of academic disciplines.

Determine an area of inquiry you want to investigate. For example, in referring to Wikipedia's detailed list of academic disciplines, one finds under the social sciences category an entry for medical anthropology. Reading the entry, one comes across the following passage: "The concept of folk medicine was taken up by professional anthropologists in the first half of the twentieth century to demarcate between magical practices, medicine and religion and to explore the role and the significance of popular healers and their self-medicating practices." Folk medicine sounds like something interesting to explore and the further reading, references and external links sections in the Wikipedia entry offer additional background.

Case Histories

We will read Stuart Firestein's Ignorance: How It Drives Science as we perform this assignment ("Should scientists be more forthcoming about their flaws?" asks Michelle Nijhuis in Slate). Firestein begins Chapter 6: "Now we may turn to the question of how you can use ignorance to understand that activity broadly called science and the things it produces, rather than being alienated by something you know you depend on" (82). One suggestion for exploring scientific disciplines that Firestein offers: Ask questions. Specifically, Firestein suggests: "Ask them [scientists] what the questions are, what are the interesting things in their field no knows about" (82)? Where might your questions originate? Discover magazine, Scientific American or the New York Times Science section. With persistence, and some judicious glossing over the technical details, you can read articles in scientific journals like Nature, Science, Cell and, perhaps most importantly, in the primary journals of the field you choose, in order to develop questions.

On pages 86-87, Firestein lists a series of questions that his class members asked of invited lecturers from the sciences and mathematics. These, and similar questions, are ones you might pose to a practitioners in the discipline, and area of inquiry, that you choose to explore. Moreover, Firestein deploys many of the questions in writing in four case histories (pgs. 89-168) — in cognitive psychology, theoretical physics, astronomy and neuroscience — that offer thoughtful and detailed insights on these disciplines. Firestein's approach, and emphasis on ignorance in science, lends an approach for developing a case history about a specific area of interest in scientific inquiry.


While Firestein should provide inspiration for your approach — consider the structure of case histories — please do not follow his examples slavishly. Still, the focus on ignorance does provide a way into the particular area of scientific inquiry that interests you. Again, Firestein offers guidance for questions to pursue on pages 86-87.

Please conduct research using popular and professional sources. While Google seems the fount of all wisdom consulting a real, live librarian is strongly encouraged.

Interviews — in person, through email, through Skype or other digital media — are not required in writing your case history. However, talking with scientists (think imaginatively and locally) appears a useful way to approach your case history.

Please cite your sources using MLA Formatting and Style Guide.

You will post your Case Histories to our wiki. Wikis allow for the easy embedding of media — photos, videos and the like — that you create or are created by others (you must cite). You are not required to create, or embed (and cite) such media, but can as necessary.


Due: By midnight 25 September.
Length: 750-1250 words.
Format: Text posted to the appropriate forum on the wiki. Please work in your work processing program then cut, past and format in the wiki.
Citation: Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.

Science Writing