Welcome to Spallanzani’s Bats!

This blog was started in partial fulfillment of the requirements of courses in the Masters of Education program at the University of Houston CUIN 7356 (Issues in Distance Learning) and CUIN  7376  (Design of Online Educational Resources.).

The title of this blog refers to the working title of a book I’m working on (Spallanzani’s Bats: A Guidebook for Researchers in the Biological Sciences).  Topics to be discussed will include the mentoring and training of researchers.

Summary :  Graduate students in the different branches of biological sciences learn discipline-dependent content and techniques formally during course work and informally while conducting research and jumping the various hurdles of graduate studies, including the Qualifying Examination and the Dissertation.  Many trans-disciplinary topics are treated informally or superficially in graduate training programs; these include scientific ethics, writing and citation skills and grant proposal development.  Books and shorter texts are available for most disciplinary topics, but published resources dealing with the milestones of graduate studies and trans-disciplinary topics are scarce.  Spallanzani’s Bats: A Guidebook for Researchers in the Biological Sciences solves this problem by providing a single source guidebook for trans-disciplinary topics. Based on the mnemonic device of OPTEMASM, Spallanzani’s Bats treats science as a problem-oriented, problem-solving art, and scientists as practitioners of that art.

Problem Identification:    Graduate students in the biological sciences need to learn to wear many hats: scientific researcher; inventor; ethicist; historian; philosopher; teacher; writer; editor; critic; mentor; faculty member; committee member; lab manager; strategist.   Graduate programs are often organized to train students to know the intellectual content and techniques of their own discipline, but lack the resources to train students in those skills that are important to their success as professionals but that do not fit into the traditional categories of scientific curricula. The student is expected to master these skills as they become needed, on his own, or under the tutelage of research advisors.  This expectation presupposes that research advisors—mentors—have not only the skills and knowledge needed but the time, inclination and patience to transfer them to their protégés.   As these conditions are not present always, there is a need for professional resources to ‘bridge the gap’ between disciplinary content and techniques and trans-disciplinary professional skills.

Problem-solution:   Spallanzani’s Bats:  A Guidebook for Researchers in the Biological Sciences is such a resource. Its guiding idea is that a single book can provide information and guidance normally provided by mentors in an informal way.  As such it would be a resource for students, graduate training programs and research advisors. The concept of such a resource developed from a course —Introduction to Graduate Research­—offered over the last two decades by the Department of Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine.  Spallanzani’s Bats is not intended as a substitute for such a course, but it should be useful without one.  It is ‘guidebook’ not so much to techniques— though it provides them—but of ideas, intellectual tools for the developing scientist.

Background for the idea of a guidebook. The idea for a guidebook providing trans-disciplinary material for graduate students is not entirely new.  One lineage of material deals with the “scientific method”. Francis Bacon’s books, especially the Novum Organum (1620), can be seen as ‘handbooks’ for how to reason scientifically.  Comte’s positivist philosophy underpinned  two landmark books written with both scientists and laypersons in mind; these  proposed that understanding how ‘scientists’[1] think was important for a competent citizenry.  These were William K. Clifford’s Common Sense of the Exact Sciences (1885), edited post-humously by Karl Pearson, and Pearson’s own Grammar of Science (1892). Percy Bridgman’s The Logic of Modern Physics (1927) introduced ‘operationalism’ to a broad scientific community but is hardly a ‘handbook’ and not directly useful to the biomedical scientist.  We can seen the entire ‘reflective thinking’ or ‘critical thinking’ movement, especially as developed by John Dewey’s How We Think (1910) as an extension of Bacon and Comte. Dozens of books are now published combining “science” with “critical thinking” and are conceived as using examples from science to ‘teach’ critical thinking skills to children. None of these are geared toward the graduate student.

William Chamberlin’s excellent essay in 1894 on “The Method of Multiple Hypotheses”[2] was reprinted in Science in 1965. It was written for geologists in mind, but its lessons directly apply to biology.  Peter Medawar’s Advice to Young Scientists and Malcolm Beveridge’s  The Art of Scientific Investigation were written for the young biomedical scientist, both highly readable and personal. Key ideas from Freedman’s Principles of Scientific Research (1949, 1960)(Freedman 1960) are discussed in the chapter on OPTEMA.    Finally, John Platt’s 1964 essay on  “Strong Inference”[3] re-introduced Chamberlin’s essay and emphasized the value of the  “fingerpost experiment”.

Another lineage of books deals with aspects of writing—all descendents of grammars and books of rhetoric—all descendents of Aristotle’s Poetics.  Because of the requirement for English composition classes in many colleges, handbooks on composition and writing style are an industry of their own. Perhaps the earliest designed for scientists is Allbutt’s 1904 Notes on the Composition of Scientific Papers (Allbutt 1904), which might be considered the first handbook  for scientists.  A more recent and still useful example of this subgenre is Day’s 1979 How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (Day 1979).

A third lineage of handbooks deal with the mathematical assessment of biological variation. It began with Fisher’s Handbook of Statistics for Laboratory Workers which served several generations but is now replaced by recent textbooks of statistics.  Most of these are reference works.

No single text ranges the entire domain of “trans-disciplinary” topics important to the graduate student, and most of the topics treated are virtually ignored.  For example, the literature on the Qualifying Exam, considered by some as the most critical step for the PhD student in any field, barely exists.

Structure and design of the text:    Spallanzani’s Bats is a series of chapters —3,000-4,000 words in length—organized loosely around the mnemonic device OPTEMASM.  OPTEMA  (Observations; Problems; Testable ideas; Experiments; Methods; Analysis) describes recurrent processes and themes used whenever anyone—not just scientists—solve problems and provides the central theme of the handbook:  that scientists are problem-solvers; that the enterprise of science is to solve importance problems facing humanity; that scientists can understand their own profession and communicate it more effectively if they are problem-oriented rather than focused on testing hypotheses. If there is a method to science, it is not the testing of hypotheses but the relentless pursuit of effective solutions to problems.  This viewpoint is by no means original, but strikes many as opposed to their long-held conception of science and “its” method.

Each chapter addresses a trans-disciplinary problem facing the graduate student.  The treatment is both theoretical and practical, and enriched as appropriate with examples.  In many cases, these examples will be drawn from the investigations of Lorenzo Spallanzani during the closing years of the 18th century on the mechanism of bat navigation.  This research was chosen in part because it should be accessible to any graduate student in biological sciences.  The details of Spallanzani’s work in this field are not well-known, however, and are therefore reviewed in an early chapter.

The level of exposition is that of a college freshman, with no expectation of significant scientific research experience or training in formal logic or the philosophy of science: in other words,  the typical beginning graduate student.


Allbutt, T. C. (1904). Notes on the Composition of Scientific Papers. London, Macmillan.

Day, R. A. (1979). How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Philadelphia, ISI Press.

Freedman, P. (1960). The Principles of Scientific Research. Oxford, Pergamon Press.

[1] A term coined by William Whewell in the 1840’s to denote the rising professionalism of  “scientists” and distinguish them from “philosophers”; until Whewell the terms “science” and “philosophy” were interchangeable.

[2] Chamberlin, TC (1897)  “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses “ reprinted in (1965) Science 148 754-759.  I hope to reprint this essay in the Appendix .

[3] Science 146 :347-353

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