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Public Lab Research note

Harry Collins and his Sociologist Stones

by cfastie | November 17, 2015 00:15 17 Nov 00:15 | #12418 | #12418

Liz Barry has been organizing a discussion about expertise at the upcoming Public Lab Barnraising this weekend. She has been prompting everyone with readings from Harry Collins’ Are We All Scientific Experts Now. Liz also moderated a Google Hangout with Daniel Sarewitz of The Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.

These prompts are not lightweight material, and made my head spin a few times. I will not be at the barnraising to join the discussions, so I thought I would describe my confusion here. Maybe someone with expertise about expertise can help make the spinning stop.

A theme of the Google Hangout was that science is not contributing to society the way it seemed to be in the 20th century. For example Sarewitz remarked that “The science system is in deep trouble,” and “I think the dream [that science could resolve environmental disputes] is empirically falsified at this point,” and “Science is simply not a good tool for adjudicating value disputes between, say, the private sector and environmental groups.”

This seems like a pretty pessimistic view of science. At LEAFFEST we had a couple of intense conversations about this and Jeff Warren pointed out an important distinction that is not explicitly made in the Google Hangout. It’s important to specify whether the word science refers to the method of science or the current institutional practice of science. Although it is a legitimate pursuit to question whether science is the best way to learn about the universe, I don’t think this is the discussion that Public Lab is intending to have. There are certainly alternatives to science as approaches for creating knowledge about our world, but I assume Public Lab is not advocating revelation, intuition, anecdote, received wisdom, or consensus as replacements for careful observation and conservative interpretation (aka science). So I assume the discussion is about how the institution of science has “failed society,” it is not an indictment of science as a way of knowing. Although when Sarewitz says “We all know there is no science,” I wonder whether he actually thinks there might be something better than science for learning about the world.

If the institution of science is broken, what do we do about it? There seems to be an idea that it can be replaced with some form of local, grassroots, volunteer corps of non-scientists solving all the problems that today’s institution of science has failed to solve. But these utopian ideas don’t seem to be very well thought out. All we get is barely interpretable jargon like Wenger’s concept of “…changing participation and identity transformation in a community of practice.” If non–scientists are going to do what scientists have failed to do, aren’t they going to have to acquire so much science-like expertise that they will essentially become scientists? Then the only thing that will protect them from Liz’s wrath is the fact that they are doing all the required field work and laboratory analysis for free. Yeah, these ideas need more work.

There seems to be a lot of angst associated with the perceived failure of science to resolve important disputes, for example, between oil companies and environmentalists. Where does it say that this is the role of science? If science is capable of making crucial findings like describing the environmental effects of Corexit when poured into the Gulf of Mexico to disperse an oil spill, do you really want science to take time out to bludgeon BP with this result? Maybe somebody else should step up and do that. Maybe people in the 1950s thought science should be able to do both, but people in the 1950s were clueless about a lot of stuff. It might be that a substantial proportion of my head spinning is attributable to the overblown expectations that many non-scientists have about the role of science. Scientists don’t seem to be at all concerned that science is not solving all of society’s problems because scientists know that they are not necessarily trained to do that, paid to do that, or obligated to do that. Asking the institution of science to train its recruits differently and require them to be more socially connected might sound like a good solution, but should they be more connected to environmentalists or BP? It might not be a bad idea to keep science just a little bit insulated from certain aspects of society.

The title of Harry Collins’ book has gotten some Public Lab people very excited about the prospect that maybe we all can be scientific experts now. This is apparently perceived as an answer to the failure of science. If non-scientists can be experts just like scientists, maybe we don’t need all of those failed scientists anymore. This is not only sort of silly, it appears to be a misreading of Harry Collins. Collins has spent his career studying just how human, and social, and fallible science is. But Collins has made it clear to many recent interviewers that society has swung too far in its mistrust of science and needs to start swinging back. As Times Higher Education put it “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.” So Collins seems to have a rather deep and reasoned view of these issues, and discussions of his work should take that into account.

I was certainly puzzled by one of the points Collins made in Chapter 1 of the “Experts” book. He describes “Wave 2” of science studies as responding to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When a revolution happens, scientists have a dramatic new understanding of how the world works. For example, Einstein’s discoveries radically changed the way scientists think about (and even define the terms) mass, energy, and time. But Collins says that “...for scientists, the very constituents of the world changed.” By this he seems to mean that the physical world actually changes, not just our understanding of it. He then uses this idea to refute science's greatest strength that its theories relentlessly converge on the true nature of the world. When a revolution happens “...the world is no longer a fixed point.” Therefore scientists had “ anvil on which their truths could be hammered out.” If nature keeps changing every time scientists learn more about it, science is not going to help us understand nature any more than religion or art or literature. Yikes Harry, where does all this come from?

I think it’s fair to say that before the Copernican scientific revolution, Earth revolved around the Sun, even though Ptolemy didn’t know it. Before Darwin, the genetic makeup of populations changed in response to environmental pressures, even though Bishop Ussher didn’t know it. Before Alfred Wegener, Earth’s tectonic plates drifted around slowly, even though nobody ever gave the idea a passing thought. The notion that nature changes when we learn something new about it is magical thinking. The idea that science is diminished because it makes great leaps in our understanding of the universe is outrageous. Science is fundamentally different from religion, art, and literature as a way to create knowledge about the world. Sociologists and philosophers can debate this point ad infinitum, but doing so is not going to change reality.

And neither is this research note, although maybe it will help someone survive the discussions in Cocodrie. Have fun.


It’s important to specify whether the word science refers to the method of science or the current institutional practice of science.

I think the tension between science as method and as a cultural force bears relation to the other distinction you point out, that tectonic plates were drifting around long before we gave them much thought. The idea that our world is changed by how we think about it instead of vice-versa was recognized by Charles Peirce long ago as a modern form of nominalism versus realism debate. Peirce was a 'realist' in the sense that he conceived the world to be whatever it is independent of what you or I may think about it. But given as a starting point an agreed upon method of enquiry, it was the inevitable outcome of such activity that any group of individuals would eventually arrive at an accurate (and non-relativistic) accounting of things as they are, i.e. at the truth. Perhaps talk of 'truth' in terms of science gets one into trouble these days but I'm no expert.

Peirce was a realist in an age when only nominalists got academic appointments so not much is heard of him these days. That's a pity since the term 'community of practice' originates in his writings.

If I'm making any coherent point it's only that the method of science, a'la Peirce, is a kind of birthright in us. We have it like we have binocular vision, as part of our common genetic endowment. The current institutional practice of science - and expertise in general - can be seen as reserving these rights for only a few. Peirce had many other ideas that bear on the discussion of science and expertise such as his logic of abduction or the art of right guessing.

Wonderful post Chris and we'll miss you! Sending postcards from Cocodrie!

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I haven't read Collins, but I think the subject of how expertise could be reconfigured is very important, and have a few thoughts in response to your post, mostly the first half.

First, one thing I agree with is that replacing professionalized science is not a good idea -- and I don't think many are arguing for it. We've talked a lot in Public Lab about re-connecting professional scientists with public discourse and with the public itself, not only through "better science communication" (which is most of what I hear about from their side) but through closer alliances and collaborations between scientists and the stakeholders in specific problems that we as a society are trying to solve. This is not so much "replacing" science practice as reforming and opening it up.

The promising part of such closer engagement is that both parties stand to gain. That scientists can be ignorant of the complexity which lifelong residents of a place take for granted has been recognized for decades -- for a close examination of these kinds of issues, take a look at Collins' 2002 chapter written with Trevor Pinch -- The Science of the Lambs about the dysfunctional relationship between Cumbrian sheep farmers and the scientists trying to study radioactive fallout on their land.

I believe that in many cases, better dialogue between scientists and the communities they work in would result in better science, but also in science that explores questions more relevant to local needs. It's easy to say that scientists should remain aloof in order to maintain their impartiality, but there's a big difference between impartiality in data collection and analysis, and collaboration in the shaping of research questions. One would hope that science practice is inspired by the desire to better understand the world, and to separate that goal from any means to apply such knowledge towards the solving of our society's greatest problems seems silly.

Which is to say, science serves many agendas, and it's hard to find a field of scientific inquiry that doesn't play a role in economic, social, or political discourse. Scientists who write and receive grants or work in industry must know that their work -- and above all, the research questions they choose to ask -- are informed by, even if unconsciously, the sources of their funding. I really think it's important here to be clear -- even if the data themselves are impartial and dispassionate, the framing of research questions and the choice to study a particular problem over another is where I see both the strongest role of influence on research. But that early stage in the science process -- what should we study? -- is where I think the public has the most promising role to play, in part because that is where industry is already playing an enormous role. Conversely, if greater distance between scientists and the rest of society means that corporations like Koch Industries or Syngenta can't buy science for political or economic gain, then I'd support it.

Anyhow, though valuable debates to have, I think these scenarios are the extremes. Public Lab as a community is not going to get very far without close engagement with science practitioners, and the level of engagement I've seen from both sides seems healthy, perhaps because scientists see a lot of promise in the approaches we're taking to both low-cost data collection and public engagement. I'm most interested in imagining a world where higher science literacy -- and capacity -- results in the greater ability of the public to identify problems, and to engage in dialogue and collaboration with professional scientists to further investigate them. If the public were to have cheap, ubiquitous, reliable pollution detection tools, perhaps similarly to community-run weather stations on Wunderground, that could be a valuable first line of detection which would help us to focus and inform the more limited resources of institutional science practice on sites of high concern. Win-win!

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I suppose I am old school, and my job is to struggle to get more science and evidence into environmental decision making, but there are funding consequences for scientists for making poltiical statements.

Climategate, to me, is more a witch hunt than some question of scientific legitimacy. I would protect professional scientists from persecution they receive from studying difficult subjects.

Unfortunately, this is affecting us at LUMCON directly, as LSU has removed Dr Nancy Rabalais from her position at LUMCON, and they seek to reconfigure the institution away from education and mentoring and toward hard research. Dr Rabalais also studies the Dead Zone, which is a very politically unpopular issue.

This decision may impact, eventually, our ability to meet at LUMCON.

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