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[BOOKS] How Scientific Inquiry Works

Impressive hardware at Pacific Biosciences, a genome sequencing company. Photo by Gregg Segal/Gallery Stock

Photo by Gregg Segal/Gallery Stock

61XFL07talL._SL110_Are We all Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, Polity Press, 140 pp, ISBN: 978-0745682044

For The Dublin Review of BooksSeamus O’Mahony writes:  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.

[Order the book Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins from Amazon.com]

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!”

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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 …” Read the rest of this entry »

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Houston Middle School Teacher Accused Of Giving Lap Dance To Student In Front Of Class

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HOUSTON (CBS Houston) — A middle school teacher reportedly admits that she gave a student a birthday lap dance in front of the entire class.

KHOU-TV reports that 42-year-old Felicia Smith gave the lap dance to a 15-year-old boy inside a Stovall Middle School classroom on Feb. 26.

According to court documents, Smith stopped the teenage boy from going to his next class and the entire class told him to sit down in a chair placed in the front of the room.

The Houston Chronicle reports Smith then gave the boy a “full-contact lap dance” and the boy told authorities she touched him all over his body, including placing her head between his legs.

At the end of the four-minute long lap dance, Smith reportedly told the boy, “ I love you, baby. Happy birthday.” Read the rest of this entry »


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