“Like the Oscars of academic publishing”: UAB philosopher’s book fostering understanding of life through science receives prestigious recognition

Kevin McCain’s award-winning book “Understanding How Science Explains the World” explores the nature of scientific explanation and addresses common misconceptions about scientific theories.

KevinMcCainKevin McCain, Ph.D.
Photography: Nik Layman
Understanding life. It is a concept that seems unsurmountable, though not for lack of effort. Humankind constantly attempts to seek answers to better grasp life’s complexities and, hopefully, get a clearer picture of it.

Kevin McCain, Ph.D., a philosopher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was struck with the same question of understanding life and chose to unravel the answer through a scientific lens. As a result, his book “Understanding How Science Explains the World” has been named one of Choice Reviews Outstanding Academic Titles of 2023

“While there are various measures for telling whether a work for an academic audience is reaching the target audience, it is often difficult to tell whether a work for a general audience is successfully reaching them,” said McCain, professor of philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences. “This award serves as evidence and confirmation that my book is well-suited and well-received by my target audience, which means ‘it hit its mark.’”

According to McCain’s editor at Cambridge University Press, the Choice Review Awards are like the Oscars of Academic Publishing. This prestigious list reflects the best in scholarly titles, both print and digital, reviewed by Choice during the previous year and brings with it the extraordinary recognition of the academic library community. The list is quite selective, containing approximately 10 percent of some 5,000 works reviewed annually in Choice. The criteria include excellence in presentation and scholarship, relevance, and significance to other literature in the field, originality, and uniqueness, among others.

McCain’s book is part of Cambridge University Press’ series Understanding Life. While most of the titles in the series are focused on issues within the life sciences: understanding evolution, understanding genes, understanding cancer and so on, McCain’s title has a broader focus. His book explores the nature and contours of scientific explanation, how such explanations are evaluated, and how they lead to scientific knowledge and understanding.

His main goals with the book are to help foster an appreciation of the role that explanatory reasoning plays in the sciences and clarify common misconceptions about science and its explanations. 

“Two of the primary misunderstandings that I would like for readers to come to recognize as mistaken are the idea that, in order to be good science, or even genuinely scientific, a theory must explain everything and the idea that we cannot have scientific knowledge because it is always possible that a well-confirmed theory will be abandoned in the future,” he said. 

The journey to writing this book and attempting to answer the hard question of understanding life was not one without challenges. McCain says his primary challenge was to keep the book accessible to non-academics. 

“While the book is a work of philosophy of science, it assumes no prior familiarity with philosophy and no scientific expertise,” he said. “At times, it was difficult to figure out how to best express deep philosophical issues in a way readers can readily understand without leaving out key details.” 

Given the success and depth of meaning in McCain’s book, it is set to be translated into the Turkish language and will be published by the Koç University Press.