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 “...no 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.