HOW SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY WORKS
Are We all Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, Polity Press, 140 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0745682044
Harry Collins is a “sociologist of science”: he has studied scientists, just as Margaret Mead studied Samoans and Jane Goodall lived with chimpanzees. Here he chooses to study one particular type of scientist, namely gravitational-wave physicists. He likes them: “they’re my ideal kind of academic. They’re doing a slightly crazy, almost impossible project, and they’re doing it for purely academic reasons with no economic payoff.” Collins has spent many years examining the concept of scientific “expertise” and Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, a short book, is a readable distillation of his work in this field, and, ultimately, a passionate defence of science.
Collins refers to the period up to the 1960s, when scientists were regarded as infallible, remote and almost godlike, as “Wave 1”. “Wave 2” was the next twenty-five years or so, when critics (mainly from the humanities, and including Collins himself) began to question the exalted status of science. Laboratory Life: the Construction of Scientific Facts (1979) by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, showed that scientists were as flawed as anyone else: they swore, they made mistakes, they quarrelled. The critics of science argued that it, and its practitioners, should no longer be accorded an exalted status. Science was a social activity, carried out by imperfect individuals; its claim to ultimate truth was false. A variety of “scandals” – mad cow disease, “climategate”, the MMR vaccine debacle ‑ were seized on by the media to justify this fall from grace, this defrocking of a previously untouchable priestly caste. The arrival of the Internet only strengthened the growing suspicion that “ordinary” people could become empowered by having information; Collins calls this sense of empowerment “default expertise”. He deftly illustrates the paradox of public distrust of science and scientists during a period when science and technology has achieved so much: “We have seen Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon and we can watch satellite TV only because space rockets do work. Nowadays the journey to the airport is more dangerous than the plane ride. And the very Internet I use to get my anti-vaccination propaganda fix wouldn’t be there without the scientists. Hasn’t smallpox been eradicated and polio nearly so? Compare my teeth with my father’s and grandfather’s!”
Why then, does the public imagination focus so much on science’s perceived failures? “It is something to do with the world view,” writes Collins, “or spirit of the age – what we will call the ‘zeitgeist’.” He is unable to elaborate further: “no one, aside from advertising agencies, press magnates and fascist dictators, knows how the zeitgeist works. I certainly do not.” He does suggest, however, that his fellow academics may have something to do with it: “Whether or not it has been important, academics’ reflection and reinforcement of the spirit of the age has been revealing. Since the 1960s, certain academic groups have been effectively trying to turn us all into default experts by showing that there is nothing special about science. For some this has been inadvertent, while for others it has been an explicit project. The academics in question come from the social sciences or the humanities and they make a living from reflecting on, researching and writing about the natural sciences. Since around the middle of the twentieth century there has been a boom in this kind of work – it is known as ‘science studies’. I am one of its founders and long-term practitioners ...”
Thankfully, Collins is no postmodernist deconstructor of science. He actually admires scientists, and his prose is refreshingly free of academic jargon. He is one of the founding fathers of the new discipline of sociology of science, which, along with history of science and philosophy of science, forms what is known as “Science Studies”. Collins credits Thomas Kuhn, whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962, with kick-starting “Wave 2”: “Kuhn said that certain new ways of thinking had a revolutionary effect on the way scientists interacted with the world. Einstein’s idea of relativity is an example. Before relativity scientists thought of the world in a certain way: mass and energy were fixed and there was no limit on the speed at which things could travel. After relativity, mass and energy became interchangeable and, most remarkable of all, the speed of light became an absolute limit. Kuhn claimed this meant that for scientists, when the revolution took place, the way they acted – for example, how they did experiments and the conclusions they drew from them – changed too: for scientists, the very constituents of the world changed.”
Collins argues that Kuhn’s ideas were much more nuanced than is usually acknowledged: “Academics often engage in a kind of journalism – they pick up the headline, not the detail, when they make use of another’s work.” Kuhn’s book was used to support the argument that there was nothing special about science, a sentiment which horrified Kuhn himself. The essence of Kuhn’s argument is stated by Collins thus: “if the world changes in the course of a scientific revolution because of the way scientists think about it, then the world is no longer a fixed point. The world is no longer the anvil against which all theories can be hammered into shape. If the world changes when scientists think about it in a different way, then, not only what counts as true in science depends on where and when the scientists live: scientists who live in one place or time live in one world, while scientists who live in another place or time live in another world.”
In 1959, the novelist and chemist CP Snow gave a famous lecture at Cambridge, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow lamented the fact that academics in the humanities could cheerfully admit to ignorance about science – some even wearing such ignorance as a badge of honour – yet for a scientist to admit to ignorance of, say, Shakespeare, was a mark of philistinism. The phrase “the two cultures” struck a chord, and entered the language as a kind of shorthand to describe the disconnect between the two academic communities, humanities and science. Kuhn’s ideas – or a highly selective culling from his book – were gleefully taken up by humanities academics anxious to knock science off its perch: “science was not so different after all, so the arts and humanities had no need to feel inferior in the face of its success and nothing needed to change in respect of the status relationship between the two cultures”.
When the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) started out, the researchers generally worked hard to actually understand the science they were analysing. Then, inevitably, the easy option of the postmodernist critique looked so much more attractive. Why not use the tools of literary criticism and semiotics? After all, scientific papers were “literary products”. Science, they claimed, was “a continuation of politics by another means”, and there was no pressing requirement to become knowledgeable about the science. The postmodernist literary critique approach to SSK proved to be incredibly influential: “For those influenced by these academics – and the influence became stronger after the arts and humanities discovered the literary critique of science – the bar had fallen to the ground and we could all be scientific experts. I remember one meeting where an artist explained to me that the problems of gravitational-wave physics would be solved if only the research teams were expanded to include the arts.” Throughout the 1980s, this nonsense escalated: feminist humanities academics argued that science “was dominated by males and revealed that this showed through even into the actual substance of, say, reproductive technologies”.
I have witnessed a similar phenomenon in my own area of applied science, namely medicine. Medical schools failed to spot the seismic changes in the humanities and social sciences that began in the late 1960s; doctors and medical students were mystified by postmodernist claims that there was no objective truth, that all written documents – even scientific papers – were “narratives” informed by the cultural and economic milieu of the authors. They failed to recognize the anti-scientism of postmodernism’s high priests, such as Foucault and Derrida. Modern scientific medicine is essentially a product of the Enlightenment, and its astounding success in the twentieth century was proof enough for most doctors of the truth of Enlightenment ideals. Yet as with all astounding successes, a degree of arrogance crept in, and modern medicine began to be seen in some quarters as inhumane, mechanistic, arrogant, and self-serving.
In its early years, courses in “medical humanities” were generally taught by doctors who happened to have an interest in literature, history, and ethics, but career humanities academics from a variety of disciplines, such as English literature, history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, gradually began to take a keen interest. This new medical humanities has stepped into the void created by modern medicine’s failure of nerve. The contemporary study of medical humanities has grand ambitions: the promotion of social justice; the teaching of empathy; the encouragement of sensitivity to ethnic, gender, and cultural issues; and an end to the old patriarchalism. Medical humanities has its own journals, conferences and academic departments, and it has enthusiastically adopted the language of academic postmodernism. Here is a sentence from a recent article in the journal Medical Humanities entitled “Medical Humanities as Expressive of Western Culture”: “The act of asserting disciplinarity, even interdisciplinarity, derives momentum from a certain teleological impetus to self-narrate, producing a coherent or centralizing version of self-hood in relation to one’s envisaged audience”. This passage is reminiscent of the infamous 1996 Sokal hoax, when the eminent physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the American journal Social Text entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. The paper, a parody of postmodernist gobbledygook, was accepted and published.
Complementary/alternative medicine, according to this worldview, is simply a different narrative. A randomised trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine is no different from a poem: it is simply another narrative, and no narrative should be “privileged”. A 2006 article in the Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, for example, labels evidence-based medicine as a “good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific community” (Evidence-based medicine, by the way, is the scientific rock on which modern medicine stands.) This mode of thought has achieved a remarkable dominance, particularly in elite US universities.
In the early 1970s, Collins began to study how scientists – specifically, gravitational-wave physicists ‑ worked: “I had shown that scientists trying to build a new kind of laser – the TEA-laser – always failed unless they spent time in the company of a successful scientist; they had to pick up the knack of building it, a knack which neither party fully understood. This kind of invisible knack is known as ‘tacit knowledge’: it comprises the things we know but cannot say.” He studied disputes between two groups of gravitational-wave physicists: one group, using a gravitational wave detector reported a particular effect, while the opposing group believed that this was an epiphenomenon, due to incompetent construction of the wave detector. Collins observed that the dispute was eventually resolved using all manner of non-scientific considerations, such as “who has the best reputation as an experimenter or what the scientists’ pre-conceptions are in respect of whether the phenomenon should be observed or not. Instead of the scientific facts being hammered out on the anvil of reality, they are formed through the normal social processes by which we come to prefer a political party or a style of art.”
Collins looks at the issue of orthodoxy in science by examining physics. New publications in this discipline now tend to appear on an “electronic preprint server known as ‘arXiv’”, because traditional printed journals are too slow, the research already out of date by the time it appears. A number of physicists believe that they have been prevented from putting their work on this server because it does not fit with the prevailing orthodoxy in the field. These physicists have founded their own journals. I was slightly deflated to learn this, as I had always subscribed to Rutherford’s dictum that “physics is the only real science; all the rest are just stamp collecting”. Collins ruefully concludes: “Even in the hardest of sciences, one can find the equivalent of religious schisms.”
Collins has spent many years studying and writing about the concept of expertise; the middle section of this book is a scholarly analysis of different types of expertise. “Contributory expertise” is what most people imagine expertise to be. It is acquired by “working with other contributory experts and picking up their skills and techniques – their tacit knowledge of how to do things.” This type of expertise requires a period of apprenticeship, and the contributory expert is expected, particularly in the case of science, to make a contribution to his or her area of expertise. “Interactional expertise”, a relatively new concept, “is acquired by engaging in the spoken discourse of an expert community to the point of fluency but without participating in the practical activities or deliberately contributing to those activities”. To illustrate this concept, Collins uses himself as an example: he has studied gravitational-wave physicists for years, and is familiar with most of the concepts they discuss; he is thus an “interactional expert”; however, because he doesn’t actually do gravitational-wave physics, he is not a “contributory expert”. In fact, Collins is so good at talking about concepts in gravitational-wave physics, that his anonymised answers to a set of technical questions in this area could not be distinguished by a panel of gravitational-wave physicists from the responses of “contributory” experts in this field. This, Collins proudly informs us, was reported in Nature, the most prestigious of all science journals.