Are We all Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, Polity Press, 140 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0745682044
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.
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!”
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.”
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”.
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”.
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. This new medical humanities has stepped into the void created by modern medicine’s failure of nerve. The contemporary study of medical humanities has grand ambitions: the promotion of social justice; the teaching of empathy; the encouragement of sensitivity to ethnic, gender, and cultural issues; and an end to the old patriarchalism. Medical humanities has its own journals, conferences and academic departments, and it has enthusiastically adopted the language of academic postmodernism. Here is a sentence from a recent article in the journal Medical Humanities entitled “Medical Humanities as Expressive of Western Culture”: “The act of asserting disciplinarity, even interdisciplinarity, derives momentum from a certain teleological impetus to self-narrate, producing a coherent or centralizing version of self-hood in relation to one’s envisaged audience”. This passage is reminiscent of the infamous 1996 Sokal hoax, when the eminent physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the American journal Social Text entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. The paper, a parody of postmodernist gobbledygook, was accepted and published.
Complementary/alternative medicine, according to this worldview, is simply a different narrative. A randomised trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine is no different from a poem: it is simply another narrative, and no narrative should be “privileged”. A 2006 article in the Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, for example, labels evidence-based medicine as a “good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific community” (Evidence-based medicine, by the way, is the scientific rock on which modern medicine stands.) This mode of thought has achieved a remarkable dominance, particularly in elite US universities.
In the early 1970s, Collins began to study how scientists – specifically, gravitational-wave physicists ‑ worked: “I had shown that scientists trying to build a new kind of laser – the TEA-laser – always failed unless they spent time in the company of a successful scientist; they had to pick up the knack of building it, a knack which neither party fully understood. This kind of invisible knack is known as ‘tacit knowledge’: it comprises the things we know but cannot say.” He studied disputes between two groups of gravitational-wave physicists: one group, using a gravitational wave detector reported a particular effect, while the opposing group believed that this was an epiphenomenon, due to incompetent construction of the wave detector. Collins observed that the dispute was eventually resolved using all manner of non-scientific considerations, such as “who has the best reputation as an experimenter or what the scientists’ pre-conceptions are in respect of whether the phenomenon should be observed or not. Instead of the scientific facts being hammered out on the anvil of reality, they are formed through the normal social processes by which we come to prefer a political party or a style of art.”
Collins looks at the issue of orthodoxy in science by examining physics. New publications in this discipline now tend to appear on an “electronic preprint server known as ‘arXiv’”, because traditional printed journals are too slow, the research already out of date by the time it appears. A number of physicists believe that they have been prevented from putting their work on this server because it does not fit with the prevailing orthodoxy in the field. These physicists have founded their own journals. I was slightly deflated to learn this, as I had always subscribed to Rutherford’s dictum that “physics is the only real science; all the rest are just stamp collecting”. Collins ruefully concludes: “Even in the hardest of sciences, one can find the equivalent of religious schisms.”
Collins has spent many years studying and writing about the concept of expertise; the middle section of this book is a scholarly analysis of different types of expertise. “Contributory expertise” is what most people imagine expertise to be. It is acquired by “working with other contributory experts and picking up their skills and techniques – their tacit knowledge of how to do things.” This type of expertise requires a period of apprenticeship, and the contributory expert is expected, particularly in the case of science, to make a contribution to his or her area of expertise. “Interactional expertise”, a relatively new concept, “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”. To illustrate this concept, Collins uses himself as an example: he has studied gravitational-wave physicists for years, and is familiar with most of the concepts they discuss; he is thus an “interactional expert”; however, because he doesn’t actually do gravitational-wave physics, he is not a “contributory expert”. In fact, Collins is so good at talking about concepts in gravitational-wave physics, that his anonymised answers to a set of technical questions in this area could not be distinguished by a panel of gravitational-wave physicists from the responses of “contributory” experts in this field. This, Collins proudly informs us, was reported in Nature, the most prestigious of all science journals.
He observes that “ Each of them (gravitational-wave physicists) belongs to a sub-specialism within the area … In the main, no person from one subgroup could step in and do the work of a person from another subgroup – at least not without a long apprenticeship. If that were not so, they would not be specialists. And yet all these people have to coordinate their work. The way they coordinate their work is by sharing a common language which they learn when they attend the many international conferences that are part of their job, and by visiting and spending time at each other’s laboratories. What they are doing is acquiring interactional expertise in each other’s specialties … the only gravitational-wave-related expertise that someone who works in the specialism has, over and beyond an interactional expert like me, is contributory expertise in one narrow specialty.” Collins regards this particular form of expertise – interactional – as “the key to most of what happens in science”. It is the basis of what happens with peer review of papers and grant applications. He defines this expertise as “walking the talk” and concludes that it is difficult and time-consuming to acquire.
In the final third of the book, Collins takes a look at specific scientific scandals and applies these ideas on expertise to see what we can learn from them. “Climategate” broke in 2009, when hackers (who were climate-change sceptics) accessed and released private emails between researchers at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Collins quotes several of these e-mails, which were, in turn, quoted by Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican member of the US House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. (I am assuming that he is a climate-change sceptic). The emails are slangy and informal; here is a mail from Kevin Trenberth: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data … shows there should be even more warming; but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.” This, and other emails gave the impression that the scientists involved were motivated more by politics than science.
Collins analyses the response to “Climategate” by invoking the concept that distance lends enchantment, meaning “What is nuanced and unclear to those inside the core-set becomes, paradoxically, sharp and clear to those outside it. Knowledge roughly follows a ‘direct square law’ – bizarrely, as it travels further, it become rapidly stronger because all the uncertainties get lost.” So, those in the outer core – be they climate-change believers or sceptics, are much surer of their beliefs than those in the centre of the core – the scientists actively engaged in climate change research: “all that detail and nuance (is) trapped in the middle and invisible from the outside”. Collins makes the crucial point that only those within the core can have a meaningful debate about the data, because only they understand the nuance and the doubts: “the distinction between a campaign and a debate may seem subtle but it is not; scientists immediately know when their opponents have ceased to play by the rules and instead of taking their opponents’ arguments seriously they are ignoring them or caricaturing them and ‘playing to the audience’. At that point the scientist is directing argument, not at the core, but outside towards the public. That is ‘science war’ not science debate.”
The second lesson Collins takes from Climategate is that these emails were quoted out of context, and tell us, in truth, very little. Kevin Trenberth, whose email I quoted above, responded: “In my case, one cherry-picked email quote has gone viral and at last check it was featured in over 107,000 items (in Google). Here is the quote: ‘The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.’ It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often. It stems from a paper I published this year bemoaning our inability to effectively monitor the energy flows associated with short-term climate variability. It is quite clear from the paper that I was not questioning the link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and warming, or even suggesting that recent temperatures are unusual in the context of short-term natural variability.” Another scientist, who used the word “trick” in an email, pointed out that this was their usual term for something technically adept – a “neat trick” – not an attempt to defraud. Collins concludes that only those within a particular scientific community, possessing the tacit knowledge, can truly understand the language of that community.
Science is a collective activity, and “mavericks” rarely prosper. Collins examines the case of the late physicist Joe Weber. Weber, a pioneer of gravitational-wave physics in the 1960s, claimed in the mid-1970s that he could detect gravitational waves with his own (much cheaper) detector. His peers did not believe him, and his work became discredited. In 1996, he published a paper, which if confirmed, would have won him the Nobel Prize. Collins found to his astonishment that not one other gravitational-wave physicist had read the paper. Collins, who has much “interactional” expertise in gravitational-wave physics found the paper completely convincing: “The only way to know that Weber’s paper is not to be read in the way it is written is to be a member of the ‘oral culture’ of the relevant specialist community.” For Collins, this case illustrates “the huge gulf between primary source knowledge and interactional expertise”. Some scientists, including Mike Hulme, professor of climate change in East Anglia, say that scientists must “show their working”. Collins pours scorn on this notion: “For science to be publicly owned, everyone would have to become at least an interactional expert in all the sciences in which they have an interest. To become an interactional expert requires an apprenticeship.”
Which brings us to Thabo Mbeki and HIV in South Africa. Mbeki’s government decided not to supply anti-viral drugs, such as AZT, to groups such as pregnant women infected with HIV, even though AZT dramatically lowers the risk of transmission to the foetus. Mbeki’s decision was influenced by two particular scientists, Peter Duesberg and Kary Mullis. What Mbeki did not understand was that Duesberg and Mullis were to AIDS research what Joe Weber was to gravitational-wave physics. Collins refers to this as a counterfeit scientific controversy presented by Mbeki as a real scientific controversy. By the time Mbeki’s government made this terrible decision – 1999 – there was no controversy: AZT was known to work and be relatively non-toxic. What do climategate and the South African AIDS scandal tell us? “There are,” writes Collins, “huge dangers in ordinary citizens trying to make judgments about what is happening inside the scientific community from their inevitably distanced and unavoidably more polarized position outside it.”
Collins devotes most of this final section to the controversy generated by the medical scientist Dr Andrew Wakefield regarding the safety of measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine. I read this with some interest, as I am familiar with most of the players in this drama. Wakefield, a surgeon by training, joined a research group at the Royal Free Hospital in London in the 1980s. This group was interested mainly in inflammatory bowel diseases, such as colitis and Crohn’s disease. I was a full-time research fellow around the same time, working in broadly the same field, and so was familiar with Wakefield’s name long before the “scandal” blew up. He had published some earlier papers purporting to find genetic material from the measles virus in the intestinal tissues of patients with Crohn’s disease. This was, at the time, controversial, and other research groups found no evidence of measles in these patients. Many other researchers in the field believed that the molecular genetic method Wakefield had used to detect measles virus, polymerase chain-reaction (PCR), was too sensitive and commonly led to false-positive findings.
I remember Wakefield from the early 90s: good-looking, cocky, charismatic. I moved on from my research post back into clinical medicine, but Wakefield, highly published by now, stayed on as an academic. In 1998, he published a paper in the Lancet – the most prestigious general medical journal in Britain – which reported the finding of measles virus in the intestinal tissues of a small group of autistic children, whose symptoms began after receiving the measles vaccine (part of the combined MMR vaccine). The paper concluded: “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunization.” Wakefield took the rather unusual step of calling a press conference to announce his findings. He suggested that the combination of vaccines in the MMR vaccine caused autism, and that children should be given three separate vaccines, instead of the combined MMR. The press seized on the story, and anxious (typically middle class) parents either didn’t vaccinate their children at all or went to expensive private doctors to have three separate vaccinations. Parents of autistic children, desperate for any explanation for the catastrophe which had befallen their children, saw Wakefield as a messiah. Several parents reported that their child’s first symptoms of autism began shortly after receiving the MMR vaccine. This is not entirely surprising, as symptoms of autism generally begin at around the same age that the vaccine is usually given. The Tory opposition demanded that the Labour government abandon MMR. Tony Blair famously refused to confirm whether his son Leo had received the vaccine.
It later emerged that Wakefield was in receipt of money from companies with a financial interest in separate vaccination, and had also received payment from legal firms representing parents of autistic children. Several other groups failed to find any evidence of measles in the intestines of autistic children. Epidemiological studies showed no association between MMR vaccination and autism. But the damage had been done. The scare caused the vaccination rate in Britain to drop below the crucial figure of 90 per cent required to maintain “herd immunity” and the country saw a dramatic rise in clinical measles infection. Measles is generally a benign, self-limiting condition, but a small proportion of infected children will develop meningitis or encephalitis and suffer permanent brain damage or even death. There is no doubt that children died as a result of Wakefield’s claims. He was eventually struck off by the General Medical Council, and is now based in America, where he works in a private autism clinic, and remains a hero to parents of autistic children. He wasn’t the only casualty: John Walker-Smith, one of eleven co-authors, the “senior clinical investigator” of Wakefield’s Lancet paper, and a distinguished paediatric gastroenterologist, was also struck off by the GMC – after he had retired. (Britain takes a peculiar delight in the defrocking of the great and the good.)
Collins invokes the concept of “downward discrimination”: “even a minor expert can recognize certain kinds of mistakes even if they are not acknowledged by the party making them”. Collins, while acknowledging his own lack of medical expertise, observes that his general knowledge of science “is enough for me to say that the observation of half a dozen autistic children with measles virus in their gut could not establish a link between MMR and autism. In fact, it amounted to no evidence whatsoever on the relationship between MMR and autism.” Like Thabo Mbeki’s take on AIDS, this was a counterfeit scientific controversy: “There simply was no science on Wakefield’s side and this was a shameful episode in newspaper history.”
In America, celebrity “autism mom” Jenny McCarthy appeared on CNN’s Larry King show to tell viewers how her son developed autism after the MMR vaccine: “I came home, he had a fever, he stopped speaking, and then he became autistic.” Autism activists claimed there was a conspiracy involving the vaccine manufacturers and the epidemiologists who rubbished Wakefield’s work. “The crucial point,” writes Collins, “is that conspiracies are all that we are left with: however much parents feel they have the evidence of vaccination’s dangers before their very eyes, they are wrong. The only kind of expertise left to us in such a case is meta-expertise. What kind of meta-expertise is it? Is it ubiquitous discrimination – the ability to see a shifty look in the eyes of doctors and epidemiologists or some such? Let us hope not because that is far too unreliable a basis for a decision of such magnitude.” If Jenny McCarthy and her supporters truly believe in such a conspiracy, we would need, observes Collins, “the equivalent of a Watergate investigation rather than the felt certainties of a parent, however emotionally convincing those feelings are”.
The MMR story also shed light on the shockingly poor standard of reporting of health issues in the British press. What I find more worrying, and an issue which Collins fails to raise, is why the Lancet decided to publish Wakefield’s paper back in 1998. The journal rejects the vast majority of submissions without even sending them out for peer review. Wakefield’s study was small, uncontrolled, anecdotal, the sort of meretricious stuff that usually doesn’t get past the front desk. Why, then, was it sent out for peer review? How did it get past peer review? Peer review – the practice of sending papers out to be reviewed by experts in the same field – is, according to Richard Smith, who edited the British Medical Journal (BMJ) for many years, “slow, expensive, ineffective, something of a lottery, prone to bias and abuse, and hopeless at spotting errors and fraud”. What motivated the Lancet editor, Richard Horton, to go ahead and publish Wakefield’s paper? Richard Smith observed: “The values of both science and journalism, for example, might favour publication of a weak study with a conclusion that could cause a ‘scare’ among the public – because publication and debate are fundamental values to both. In contrast, medical values, which put a strong emphasis on ‘doing no harm’, might favour waiting until stronger evidence emerged. “Did Horton get carried away with a hot new sensational story for the soar-away Lancet? The warning signs were flashing red even as the Lancet went to press: in an invited commentary on Wakefield’s paper, published in the same issue, Robert Chen and Frank DeStefano, vaccine experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, wrote: “Vaccine safety concerns such as that reported by Wakefield and colleagues may snowball into societal tragedies when the media and the public confuse association with causality and shun immunization.”
The Lancet and the BMJ are old rivals. Richard Smith gleefully recounts: “In one phone call in December 2002 I had to tell the editor of the Lancet that I had compelling evidence that two major trials he had published were fraudulent.” As the MMR story unfolded, there was a Gadarene rush on the part of Wakefield’s co-researchers to dissociate themselves from the paper. In 2004, ten of Wakefield’s eleven co-authors took the unprecedented step of writing to the Lancet to “retract the interpretation” that MMR vaccine might cause autism: “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” In the same issue, Richard Horton wrote: “It seems obvious now that had we appreciated the full context in which the work reported in the 1998 Lancet paper by Wakefield and colleagues was done, publication would not have taken place in the way that it did. These are difficult judgements to make in hindsight.” Wakefield was struck off by the GMC in January 2010, and a week later, the Lancet announced in its editorial section: “we fully retract this paper from the published record”. If you go to the Lancet website now, the word “RETRACTED” covers all five pages of the paper in large bold red capitals, the word written diagonally across the page.
Ben Goldacre wrote about the Wakefield saga in Bad Science (2008): “It was the perfect story, with a single charismatic maverick fighting against the system, a Galileo-like figure; there were elements of risk, of awful personal tragedy, and of course, the question of blame.” For Goldacre, the story is emblematic of the British media’s lamentable understanding of scientific stories: “Science coverage is further crippled, of course, by the fact that the subject can be quite difficult to understand. This in itself can seem like an insult to intelligent people, like journalists, who fancy themselves as able to understand most things …”
Collins, although he does not admit it in Are We All Scientific Experts Now, started out as a keen “Wave 2” defrocker of science’s priestly caste. His views are now closer to “Wave 1”. He argues that now we need a “Wave 3” of science studies: “To understand science one has to set aside scientific fraudsters, scientists who are driven primarily by greed and scientists who are driven by fame. We have to set aside the muscular capitalists who proclaim that science is primarily about the generation of wealth. We have to set aside the theoreticians who allow themselves limitless licence to speculate, and the wild-eyed Darwinists. We have to set aside media scientists, lobbying scientists and small groups who meet to slap each other on the back because they are all so clever and can see the future. Like the paedophile priests, none of these represent what the profession of science is about … we have to look for those whose prime goal is to find out what the world is made of.”
Collins, in the end, is a great defender of the idea of science: “In their moment-to-moment actions scientists may act in a mundane way but the spirit of science is still ‘divine’. It is what science is aiming for that matters and so long as this ideal drives the actions of most scientists most of the time, then Wave 1 of science studies was not so far out in its respect for the norms and values of science … The trick that has to be learned is to treat science as special without telling fairy stories about it. This is the project called ‘Wave 3’ of science studies.” Individual scientists may be venal and self-seeking, but “science” is characterised by honesty, integrity, universalism, a willingness to expose one’s ideas to the scrutiny of others and “disinterestedness”. None of these descriptions apply, for example, to anti-vaccine campaigners. Collins however, seems to regard all “scientists” as belonging to one single, recognisable group. This strikes me as an oversimplification. I am not entirely convinced that the lessons Collins has learned from his long study of gravitational-wave physicists apply, for example, to medical researchers. I suspect that Collins’s tame physicists embody the lofty ideals of science more than these and other science sub-groups.
We are not all scientific experts now, concludes Collins, “because we do not belong to the scientific community and we do not necessarily make our judgments from the platform of the norms and aspirations that drive that community”. Furthermore the notion that we are all scientific experts is a threat to freedom: if this idea becomes the norm, then the powerful, the rich and the media-savvy “will make our truths”. Society and science, Collins believes, need to agree a new contract: “Science is inexact, messy and more often a matter of judgment than calculation. But if we want our judgments about the natural and social worlds made by good, disinterested people, then we should start the zeitgeist moving in the other direction and learn, once more, to elevate science to a special position in our society. Under this model, of course, the scientists too have a lot to live up to!” This brave, thoughtful little book should be sent to every newspaper editor. Collins doesn’t write with Ben Goldacre’s righteous anger, but his careful, nuanced scholarship is just as persuasive.
Seamus O’Mahony is a consultant physician and a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books.