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About Method

Experimenters, Snake Venom, and the History of Writing Scientifically

About Method

Experimenters, Snake Venom, and the History of Writing Scientifically

Scientists’ views on what makes an experiment successful have developed dramatically throughout history. Different criteria for proper experimentation were privileged at different times, entirely new criteria for securing experimental results emerged, and the meaning of commitment to experimentation altered. In About Method, Schickore captures this complex trajectory of change from 1660 to the twentieth century through the history of snake venom research. As experiments with poisonous snakes and venom were both challenging and controversial, the experimenters produced very detailed accounts of their investigations, which go back three hundred years—making venom research uniquely suited for such a long-term study. By analyzing key episodes in the transformation of venom research, Schickore is able to draw out the factors that have shaped methods discourse in science.
About Method shows that methodological advancement throughout history has not been simply a steady progression toward better, more sophisticated and improved methodologies of experimentation. Rather, it was a progression in awareness of the obstacles and limitations that scientists face in developing strategies to probe the myriad unknown complexities of nature. The first long-term history of this development and of snake venom research, About Method offers a major contribution to integrated history and philosophy of science.


"A compelling historical–philosophical account of the epistemology of experimentation in the life sciences from the late seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century. . . . the category of 'methods discourse' introduces a useful and nuanced dimension of analysis for the history of experimental life science. In developing a taxonomy of different levels on which this discourse operates, Schickore lays the groundwork for further exploration of methods sections as historical sources . . . . There is exciting work to be done in linking analyses of methods discourse to studies of method-making: material histories of instruments, model organisms, and experimental systems. As Schickore's book demonstrates, methods do not stand still."

Journal of the History of Biology

"[A] magnificent book on the history of experimental methods . . . . About Method is philosophically motivated history of science at its best. Schickore’s philosophical acumen shines through the book and her meticulous historical reconstructions provide an impressive account of the development of snake venom research, over a very wide geographical and chronological span. This is a first-rate contribution to a much needed long-term history of experimentation."

Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte

"Following The Microscope and the Eye, Schickore presents her second monograph, a lively and stylish contribution to the history and philosophy of experiment. Along similar lines, recent efforts such as Steinle’s Exploratory Experiments and Franklin’s What Makes a Good Experiment? reflect the dynamism of this research area. The book under review traces over 300 years of experiments with snake venom. In addition to examining how scientists conducted experiments, Schickore parses how these individuals communicated their procedures to other researchers—a pivotal but often overlooked element of scientific life. The focus on the rhetoric of experimental method permits a series of clear and incisive comments on how the scientific community—as it grew into a profession—established, enforced, and renegotiated its standards for experimental practice. Schickore serves up lucid prose while nimbly balancing several layers of argument. Although it will be most valuable to those with some field-specific preparation, the book serves as an effective tool for introducing graduate students or advanced undergraduates to major issues in the field, as well as for motivating expansions and responses from practicing researchers. Highly recommended."


About Method seeks to rescue methodology from Feyerabend’s more radical views by showing that, while scientific methodologies change, they play a crucial role in directing the practice of science. Her examples are informative and are firmly grounded in their historical contexts.”

Times Higher Education

"Jutta Schickore's About Method . . .  has the potential to change our conception of scientists’ methodological statements drastically. . . . . Schickore recovers scientific methodology as a topic of interest and breaks fresh ground in several ways. . . . About Method puts methods discourse back on the agenda and provides a framework that will be helpful to all historians and philosophers interested in the practical and experimental aspects of science."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"A book that quietly challenges whatever hopes we might have for finding the one true scientific method, while loudly showing us how intricate and creative diverse experimental methodologies have always been. . . . Schickore provides an invaluable tool for researchers and students of history and philosophy of science . . . . About Method is a wonderful example of long-term microhistories having a long-lasting philosophical payoff—including an increasing acceptance that we might never actually reach our supposedly beloved scientific method, because the experimental situations are forever too complex to be completely controlled."

HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science

"It surveys a three-century span not to tell a comprehensive history of venom research, but to intricately contextualise the shifting ways in which modern scientists have committed publicly and procedurally to experimental method. The focus on Atlantic world investigators necessarily side-lines scholarship on venom research in Asia, India, Australia and Africa, while Schickore’s engagement with the ethics and heuristics of vivisection is restrained rather than foregrounded. The book also treads a fine analytical line between the elaborate specifics of laboratory praxis and the literary technologies and witnessing procedures articulated by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their seminal work . Yet, written in a pleasant and at times jocular style, Schickore’s text sustains an intellectual rigour and precision throughout. In asking fundamental questions about what experimenters believed they were doing, its interpretive value for scholars across the biomedical and human sciences is undoubted."

History of the Human Sciences

"Excellent . . . . A very welcome addition to the recent literature on the history and philosophy of experiment."


“Schickore entices us to be interested in snake venom and then shows how researchers worked their way to answers that made sense in their different circumstances. The process of uncovering what made snake venom poisonous did not follow a straight line that culminates in our superior knowledge today. She follows the complex steps forward, sideways, and sometimes backward to show how scientific understanding emerged and evolved within the complex contexts of the time. Whether about Fontana, Weir Mitchell, or recent protein studies, Schickore’s discussions ring true to her sources while also drawing out larger lessons from history and discussion of methodological and epistemological approaches to the fascinating nature of snake bites.”

Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University

“Who would have thought that a book on the history of snake venom research could yield so many interesting and important insights? One of Schickore’s great strengths is her nose for good problems and for sources relevant to them. She has an uncanny ability to probe the seemingly barren landscape of neglected developments and minor historical figures—and to find gold. Her new book adds much evidence to the claim that the detailed epistemology of modern science has arisen out of scientific work itself, in the various disciplines, rather than from grand methodological theories such as inductivism. No one has done more than Schickore to demonstrate the value of an integrated history and philosophy of science.”

Thomas Nickles, emeritus, University of Nevada, Reno

“Following The Microscope and the Eye, Schickore has produced another sophisticated treatise giving a fully historicized view of scientific knowledge and scientific methodology as dynamically evolving entities. She weaves together history, philosophy, and science into a coherent and pleasing tapestry. Her choice of subject matter in About Method is itself a testament to her sharp eye for a phase of the history of science that reveals easily overlooked aspects of practice and effectively exposes the blind spots in standard philosophical discourse. Under her deft treatment, the long and complicated history of research on snake venom emerges not only as a fascinating episode in its own right but also as a rich source of insights for a new general framework for philosophical thinking on scientific methodology. Schickore’s historical reflections also have plenty of pertinence to current methodological debates in science, such as the ongoing ‘replication crisis’ in biology and psychology.”

Hasok Chang, University of Cambridge

Table of Contents

Introduction: “A matter so obscure, so difficult, and likewise so new . . .”
Chapter 1. Argument, Narrative, and Methods Discourse
Chapter 2. Many, Many Experiments
Chapter 3. Trying Again
Chapter 4. Newtonian Poison: A Mechanical Account of Viper Venom
Chapter 5. Experiment as the Only Guide
Chapter 6. Thousands of Experiments
Chapter 7. Practical Criticisms
Chapter 8. Controlling Experiment
Chapter 9. Unobservables
Chapter 10. Fragmentation and Modularity: Notes on Crotoxin
Conclusion: About Methods


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

History of Science Society: Suzanne J. Levinson Prize

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