Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, by Harry Collins

Athene Donald agrees that scientists, although not infallible, do know better about some things

February 27, 2014

“Thanks to climate change scams, swine flu and a whole host of own-goals, the status of the white-coated prima donnas and narcissists has never been lower in the public esteem…After a period of priest-like authority, the pointy-heads in lab coats have reassumed the role of mad cranks they enjoyed from the days of Frankenstein to boys’ comics in the 1950s.” So wrote The Daily Telegraph’s Gerald Warner four years ago in the wake of the sacking of David Nutt as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Is that really how the public see scientists? Or, as Harry Collins puts it, are we all scientific experts now?

Collins is a sociologist of science, or rather, as he likes to put it, he works in the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge. Indeed, he is one of its early proponents. The idea of “priest-like authority” he would equate with what he calls “Wave One” in his field, when scientists were believed to be infallible authorities working on ideas that could be directly tested in the laboratory. However, unlike Warner, Collins saw the “priests” being defrocked back in the 1960s and 1970s, as studies started to show that scientists were actually rather human. They swore, they made mistakes, they didn’t always agree with each other, and a lot of their lives were spent in mundane tasks such as making coffee and filling in requisition forms for test tubes and gasket seals. These apparently unexpected truths were revealed in Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s classic book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979) and elsewhere.

Collins has come full circle in his arguments and, after many years, he has accepted that we are not all equal when it comes to science

This seeming humanisation of scientists meant that, to many researchers, they were no longer seen as special, and over the next 25 years of “Wave Two” they (including Collins himself) downplayed the expertise of scientists in one way or another. This was one part of the “science wars” story that claimed that scientists had no firmer a grip on facts and truth than anyone else: since science was a social activity, results could be coloured by who presented them and so could not represent ultimate truth. One outcome was the recognition that many different groups of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, should contribute to decisions. This has become widely accepted in the years since, although these decisions may often be skewed by political demands to as great a degree as the science itself, a point Collins completely overlooks here.

Collins sought to explore the idea of expertise further and, based on the time he spent embedded in a gravitational waves research group, he introduced what he termed “interactional expertise”, believing he could effectively masquerade as a gravitational wave researcher without ever having studied the underlying science. As he puts it here: “Interactional expertise 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.” Developing the question of what expertise is, and the different flavours it comes in, occupies a substantial part of Are We All Scientific Experts Now?: a close-focus discussion of different sorts of expertise, ranging from that of the “beer mat” expert to those who genuinely can contribute to new knowledge, in other words, practising scientists.

Scientists are treated, throughout this book, as a monolithic grouping, which is obviously a vast oversimplification. The idea that there is only one way of doing science, which we can call “the” scientific method, is a view to which historians of science no longer subscribe. Furthermore, scientists are much less a race apart than Collins would imply; I believe it is dangerous to treat us as such and is likely only to reinforce the oft-discussed but somewhat imaginary and unnecessary fault line between science and the arts. Nevertheless, the virtues ascribed to scientists in Wave One of the sociology of scientific knowledge by researchers such as Robert Merton, of being “universalistic”, working by “organised scepticism” and driven by “disinterestedness”, probably do apply across the spectrum of science.

Where I think this book is strongest and the message most important is where Collins takes his ideas about different levels of expertise and translates them into the context of recent controversies. Was former South African president Thabo Mbeki creating a “fake scientific controversy” (to use Collins’ useful terminology) with his selective use of discredited science to drive his country’s attitude towards HIV/Aids treatments? Did journalists let parents and children down in driving the scare over the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)vaccination based on one man’s flawed research? What about the apparent “tricks” alluded to in the “Climategate” emails leaked or stolen from the University of East Anglia – were the scientists behaving honestly?

The answer in all these cases, Collins says, is clearly yes and his analysis is useful. It would be good to believe that the media will learn that what they claim is evidence of “balance” in reporting some stories serves simply to perpetuate untruths that the collective scientific community – those who can claim the highest level of expertise and who are speaking with more or less a single voice – have examined and rejected.

This viewpoint may also explain why, in general, scientists are reluctant to appear on programmes such as BBC One’s Question Time: since they do tend to like to be precise, the requirement to give soundbites and less-than-nuanced responses to questions that are often beyond their area of expertise is unlikely to be appealing. And even when a microphone is thrust under their nose to respond to a question that is in their field, they are still likely to want to hedge their response to reflect genuine uncertainties. This isn’t a case of being slippery; it is a case of being frank within their confidence levels. Unfortunately, that isn’t always how the media report such uncertainty.

This is certainly a book for those who are interested in science and its role in society, rather than for practitioners themselves. For the former group I believe it ought to convey important messages. It is intended to be provocative and its introductory chapter infuriated me until I realised that Collins was putting forward straw men that the rest of the book was going to shoot down. He has come full circle in his arguments and, after many years (and several books), he has accepted that we are not all equal when it comes to science. Scientists do have, by virtue of their experience and training, a special place when it comes to knowledge, and Collins is now prepared to admit it. This could be seen as a recantation of his earlier, and much more negative, position. Indeed, he is quite disingenuous in the way he presents his position here, burying his own earlier scepticism about what expertise scientists possess.

This book doesn’t address the issue of how science should interface with policy and politics, although that is the context of many of Collins’ examples (turn to Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics if you want to grasp that particular nettle). It will doubtless fail to disabuse doubters such as Warner, and indeed many in the media, of the notion that scientists are knowingly engaged in a giant climate-change scam. But for others who are curious about how scientists tackle problems and why they do often have the answers, it should prove illuminating.

The author

Harry Collins, distinguished research professor of sociology and director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise and Science at Cardiff University, was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire “into a middling-orthodox Jewish family who evacuated London’s East End during the war.

“I learned a huge amount from my parents – respect for education, knowledge and creativity; integrity; and the obsessiveness, enthusiasm and hard work that dragged them from the deep poverty of my early life to financial comfort by the time I was a teenager. Living life on the margins of society was also a good background for a sociologist.”

He is married to Susan, a nurse practitioner, and they live with her two children in Penarth, “which is really part of Cardiff. My children from my previous partnership live and work in London and my ex-partner lives in Bath. We are all on good terms and all spend time together two or three days a year.”

“We live five minutes’ walk from Cardiff Bay Barrage, which is a wonderful amenity, and our house has a garage/workshop attached, which I have fitted out to do lots of rough woodworking and other DIY.” 

As a child, recalls Collins, “I was a bit of a nerd. My parents taught me to be enthusiastic about great thinkers.”

However, he adds, “I was a rotten undergraduate and have always been bad at exams. I was lucky to have become a university lecturer, but thereafter I flourished as I could use my non-scholarly talents such as obsessiveness and creativity. I also taught myself to write well – something I enjoy – and this, I think, has helped.” 

Collins has said that early in his academic career, he “chanced upon” something on gravitational wave science in New Scientist; from this chance encounter, he would later go on to make its scientists and research practices an object of study for many years.

Asked whether he thinks scientists in that field are proud, irritated, bemused or resigned to have served for so long as his case study, he responds: “The gravitational wave scientists have nearly always been very generous about my project, even those who distrusted its academic integrity, accepting that I ought to be allowed to do my project just as they are allowed to do theirs.

“In the main I have been surprised at how well my work has been received by those scientists and that, I think, is because they recognise how much effort I have put in to understanding their world – unique for an outsider. Nowadays we mostly like each other very much, although I try to keep irritating them.”  

Collins says his view of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) “has not changed since 1981, although I have added a new element to my work – ‘studies of expertise and experience’ – which looks in a different direction without contradicting what went before. However, the overarching field, science and technology studies (STS), has changed. It has become very politicised. This breaks my heart, as politics is so easy compared to discovery. To be good at politics all you have to do is say the same as everyone wants to hear; to be good at creativity you have to say something that no one wants to hear and convince them that it is true.”

Does he see the late physicist Joseph Weber, whose work on gravitational wave detection would be discredited, as a tragic figure, a deluded one, or a dishonest man? And was he unusual among scientists?

Collins responds: “Lots of people think Weber was dishonest – I don’t. I think he was a bit prone to kidding himself, but I think of him as a hero: without him we would not have the billion-dollar field of gravitational wave physics. Science is not always about being right; it is also about being determined.”

It is often argued that the practice of both the sciences and the humanities (and society itself) would be greatly improved if schoolchildren and undergraduates were obliged to study both. Collins agrees wholeheartedly.

“I think the American school and university system has a lot to teach us. It is very important to teach everyone some science, not only because it makes a good education but also because it instils integrity; in my most recent work I am arguing that it is science’s values that are the most important thing for our society. Having spent lots of time with both communities, I have come to respect and admire the scientists even as I try to re-describe what they do in social terms. Ironically, my SSK analyses is in tension with the mythology of science that gives rise to the values I admire; life is strange.”

Early in his career, Collins took some memorable North American road trips. “I’ve done huge amounts of travelling and really enjoyed it,” he says. “But old age is catching up with me, and I keep having to cancel trips because of one ailment or another. We will have to see if there are any more problems in the queue after I get over the current labyrinthitis. My colleagues will be horrified to learn that I do not plan to retire if I can help it.”

Had he the chance to magically acquire a skill or talent he does not now possess, Collins says he would ask “to be able to play a musical instrument with flair and, if I can be greedy, to be able to draw and paint”.

Karen Shook

Are We All Scientific Experts Now?

By Harry Collins
Polity, 168pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9780745682037 and 82044
Published 28 February 2014

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