Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins
Harry Collins is a professor at Cardiff University, where he lectures on the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and his areas of research include: the Nature of Scientific Knowledge and knowledge in general; public Understanding of Science; and the Nature of Skills and Expertise, amongst other topics. He is one of our foremost thinkers in this area apparently, and this provocative little book is intended to challenge a lot of thinking about the nature of ‘expertise.’
He starts by throwing a few quandaries at us – for instance: ‘The quantum theory is said to be the most accurate theory ever, and it has quite counter-commonsensical consequences, thought absurd by Einstein, that turn out to be true – such as the instant ‘communication’ that happens under quantum entanglement.‘ (had to get that in after Jim Al Khalili talked about it at a talk I went to a couple of weeks ago).
He talks about ‘Climategate’ – the chatty and informal email exchanges between researchers at UEA about climate change which, when leaked, were leapt upon by every climate change sceptic out there. It’s not until later in the book, that he reveals how they were taken totally out of context. He refers to the scandal of MMR vaccines and autism that has led to a resurgence in measles, and the fact that a high profile celeb in the US said it made her child autistic, and people believed her, not the experts. Similarly the South African government’s decision not to offer anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women with HIV.
Having set out these challenges to science, he goes on to explain how his own field SSK developed – there have been three waves. He says: ‘In the 1950s, with radar, penicillin, nylon and all the rest, it was impossible to doubt the pre-eminence of science as a way of making knowledge. In this kind of atmosphere the job of history, philosophy and sociology of science was clear: explain how the scientific miracle worked.’ In the 1960s, orthodoxy was challenged. In the 1970s SSK as a discipline began to take hold, and Collins himself was at the forefront. Science and the humanities were not so different after all, and ‘by the middle of the 1980s, there was less and less special about science. 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.’
This leads to the major theme of the book – what defines an expert. Well, Collins has his theories, and can categorise types of experts into a whole range of types. At the bottom all of us are experts by osmosis at living in our own surroundings – he uses the naivety of The Midnight Cowboy arriving in town from the country – this is a ‘ubiquitous expertise’. So too speaking your native language. From then on in, it gets a lot more complicated and dry, if not a little confusing. It certainly confused me about my place in the scientific scheme of things!
I have a degree in materials science and after university worked in the microelectronics materials division of a chemical company for years – becoming quite a technical expert in my little niche – which was about getting the best performance from the particular materials I worked with that the R&D guys developed. Then I broadened my horizons, am now working in a school as a lab technician – where I am an expert in home-made bubble mix and the best slime recipes for science club. I retain, however, a passion for science – hence embracing the local science festival, and I take an interest in programmes, books, and magazines etc – but would never dream to claim any expertise other than a good basic understanding outside my particular field. I may have been a proper expert once, but am not now – I’m into popular science, but I don’t mind that at all.
Where I got a bit cross with Prof Collins was that he wants to elevate the role of scientist back to that of the boffin in the white coat; for science to regain its respect. It is, perhaps, an admirable aim – however real life is not like that. We are criminally short of scientists and engineers in this country now. Making science seem too difficult is never going to encourage teenagers into it. We do need the top scientists Collins argues for desperately, but we also need lots more everyday ones to keep the engine running.
Surely, popularising science is a good thing? Or is a little knowledge just too dangerous a thing, as the cases mentioned above would suggest? See, I told you I was confused, and this short book raised more questions than it answered for me. (6/10)
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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, pub Feb 2014, Polity Press, 140pp incl notes and indexes, paperback.