Why Read “Out of Date” Science Books?

August 27, 2019

Two weekends ago, I attended a presentation by Nicole Williams of A Delectable Education and Sabbath Mood Homeschool that was titled “Science: A Vast and Joyous Realm.” In her talk, Nicole addressed taking a Charlotte Mason based approach to teaching science, with particular emphasis on nature study. Toward the end of the presentation, one audience member asked Nicole a striking question: “Why do you promote older science books when they contain information that is sometimes wrong?”

I was very nearly on the edge of my seat waiting to hear Nicole’s answer, as many of the older science books that she recommends are in fact Yesterday’s Classics publications. And although Nicole addressed the question with grace and concision, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or about the many different reasons to read “outdated” science books.

Accordingly, today’s post is our response to that challenging and thought-provoking question.

Reading living books

First and foremost, the science books we republish at Yesterday’s Classics are considered living books, meaning that they are narrative accounts that awaken the mind of the reader and bring the topic to life for him. These books are intended to instruct, but also to engage the reader and to arouse their curiosity. A living book should encourage readers to seek out more information on a topic, not extinguish all interest.  We want a living book to be one of the first books that a student reads on that particular subject, and by no means the last. Ideally, a living book animates both the topic and the reader, and spurs the reader on to further independent and sustained inquiry. Although there is no strict date range to determine a living book, we find that most living science books were published before 1970.

Another major benefit of choosing this sort of book is that the reader is given the chance to participate in the process of discovery along side of the author. When facts are presented as such, it is much easier to passively accept them than when they are developed in a more narrative fashion. In the latter modality, the reader is encouraged to develop his own capacities for discovery and reasoning.

Modeling scientific inquiry

A further reason we recommend living books is that the authors of these books typically provide excellent examples to their readers of how to think, not merely what to think. An exposition of how an author has arrived at a conclusion, or simply a narrative statement of their thoughtful observations can help readers better understand the reasoning process. It is particularly important for younger scientists and readers to see each observation and logical inference laid out in succession so that they are given a model for the step-wise process of scientific reasoning. We also find that living books tend to emphasize the observation process, which is another critical skill to model for students of all ages.

Living books, including the science books we republish at Yesterday’s Classics, show readers how accessible scientific inquiry is. Inquiry is not a process that can only occur in a laboratory setting; it is a means of moving through the world, a heightened awareness of – and curiosity toward – our surroundings and the mechanisms by which they operate.

Cultivating intellectual resiliency 

Furthermore, as the scientific community continues to pursue difficult questions and continues to engage in research, ideas that have long been accepted as truth will be overturned. And it’s important for young scientists and students to understand that these changes are a natural – and even exciting – part of the trajectory of scientific discovery. Human understanding of scientific phenomena has changed significantly since the beginning of recorded history, and will continue to change as new discoveries are made. However, such discoveries do not necessarily render older findings useless, as those prior beliefs were often a necessary precursor to subsequent ones.

It’s vital for scientists to look at those invalidated beliefs and the observations that disproved them. Understanding the transitions from older beliefs to newer ones is the process of science, and is also the place, in my opinion, where the greatest educational efforts should be placed. It is examining this process that best teaches students how to think critically. Original texts and living science books serve as particularly invaluable resources in this regard.

In keeping with the idea of looking at paradigmatic transitions, it’s also important to impart intellectual resiliency to students, particularly in the sciences. If one element of a theory is overturned, in most cases a student’s system of understanding will still remain more or less intact. So what should a scientist (or any human being) do when their previous beliefs were invalidated? Is it best to put the matter out of mind entirely, and do one’s best to forget about the error? Or should we take this opportunity as a gift and reexamine our previous mistakes? Looking at mistakes is one of the most fertile opportunities for instruction and for growth. It also encourages intellectual resiliency, which we believe, is just as vital a skill for young people to develop as emotional resiliency, especially for those who are interested in the sciences!

Other reasons to read older science books

  • Older books provide an outstanding opportunity to study the history of science even as you study scientific material.
  • The literary merit of older authors is often unmatched by their modern peers.
  • Students gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the foundations of science, and the origins of scientific ideas.
  • Readers can learn to critically evaluate primary sources for themselves.
  • Modern readers may be astonished to learn just how much ancient and medieval scientists were able to discover with the limited tools available to them.
  • It is far easier for students who have learned to think critically to learn newer material later on, once they have already established a strong intellectual foundational.

Share your experience

What do you think about reading older or “outdated” science books or articles with your children or students? What aspects of those experiences have been beneficial or frustrating? Please let us know in a comment below!