The imitation game: expertise under fire

Matthew Reisz considers gravitational waves, scientific authority and sexual differences

March 8, 2017
Mask, imitation, disguise
Source: iStock

Close to a decade ago, I went down to Cardiff for the day and tried to work out the difference between men and women.

I was there to meet Harry Collins, now distinguished research professor in Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, and his colleague Robert Evans, reader in sociology. I sat down at a computer screen, typed in a few questions and got two instant responses. I knew that one came from a man and the other from a woman pretending to be a man, so it was my job to work out which was which.

In the event, I confidently came up with an answer which proved totally wrong.

That may say something about me, the particular people who were responding – or, more generally, that women trying to survive in “a man’s world” need a fairly strong sense of how men behave. Might a man have been as successful at attempting to imitate a woman?

And that leads to further questions. Are black people more adept at “passing” for white than the other way round? Can a straight person give a convincing imitation of a gay person in response to questions such as “What was it like to come out to your parents?”? Can atheists pretend to be Christians? What level of expertise do we really have about other groups of people?

At the time, Collins and Evans were just beginning to develop the Imitation Game as a serious research tool for looking as questions like these (it is based on an old parlour game which also inspired Alan Turing’s famous test for intelligent computers, whether they are able to respond to questions in a way that sounds convincingly human).

They were carrying out other research into the nature of expertise. And Collins was continuing his work as a sort of “embedded” social scientist among gravitational wave physicists.

He had started doing this in 1972, when some researchers mistakenly believed that such waves had already been discovered. He continued for more than four decades, producing books about the scientists working at the forefront of research, and was still around in 2016, when a “sighting” of gravitational waves was finally confirmed. I met up with him again recently, as I describe in a feature published tomorrow, to discuss the topics of his latest two books.

One is Gravity’s Kiss, a compelling day-to-day insider’s account of how gravitational waves physicists got to grips with their momentous long-awaited discovery. The other, co-written with Evans, is called Why Democracies Need Science, and continues their work on the nature of expertise.

Many social scientists, starting with Collins himself, have demonstrated how science is subject to the same pressures, prejudices and politicking as other human activities. But although that is undoubtedly true, it is also true that we as a society need reliable scientific input for many areas of public decision-making.

What is crucial, argue Collins and Evans in their new book, is how we reconcile these two insights. When I first chatted with them about “expertise” (and proved so hopeless at their Imitation Game), the issues sounded intellectually stimulating but hardly very urgent. In today’s climate of “alternative facts”, “post-truth politics” and anti-expert rhetoric, it has suddenly become acutely relevant.

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