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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!”

library-science

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.”

An artist’s impression of a self-replicating nano robot – it has been proposed that similar machines could be used to colonise Mars  Photo: science photo library

An artist’s impression of a self-replicating nano robot – it has been proposed that similar machines could be used to colonise Mars  Photo: science photo library

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”.

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

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”.

Orbital Sciences will once again attempt to rendezvous with the International Space Station when it launches the Cynus spacecraft aboard its Antares rocket, shown here in a file photo of an earlier launch. Photo courtesy Orbital Sciences

Orbital Sciences will once again attempt to rendezvous with the International Space Station when it launches the Cynus spacecraft aboard its Antares rocket, shown here in a file photo of an earlier launch. Photo courtesy Orbital Sciences

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….(read more)

Dublin Review of Books

Seamus O’Mahony is a consultant physician and a regular contributor to theDublin Review of Books.

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

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One Comment on “[BOOKS] How Scientific Inquiry Works”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet Are We all Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, Polity Press, 140 pp, ISBN: 978-0745682044 For […]


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