Top positive review
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Wrong, for an interesting reason
on 6 May 2014
This is a classic Polity Press book. It's a short book- more an extended essay, and it tackles an interesting, and potentially controversial, question in an interesting way. The answer to the question it addresses, "Are we all scientific experts now?" is of course "No." But I don't think we have all claimed to be such experts- either in our own narrow specialities or in the wider arena of science.
I think the real question the author wants to address is why do people seem to have lost trust in science? Why is the scientific expert not always believed nowadays? What basis do we have for doubting their expertise?
In medicine we have been facing this loss of trust for some time now. Onora O'Neill described the problems well in "A Question of Trust?"- her 2002 Reith Lectures. Well described failings in basic medical care have been seen in many settings- and although the doctors involved may have been "expert" the results of their care was not "good."
Collins tries to describe and circumscribe certain specific types of expertise. He sees science as a very special way of knowing the world- and he'd like to elevate it on this basis, and give it great respect, and expect its practitioners to live up to this ideal. He describes having great respect for the "norms of science."
I think Collins doesn't quite get his answer to the question of why scientific expertise is not always respected right.
I think science done well, reported honestly, and by scientists who both know a lot, but also have some sense of what they do not know, or what might be wrong with their account will be respected. It's all covered by the classic report writer's cliche, "to the best of my knowledge and belief." Newton's idea that he just cast a few pebbles into the ocean of ignorance catches this.When science acknowledges its limitations- both in terms of basic concepts, and in terms of current practicalities of measurement it tends to be on strong ground. Its conclusions will be tentative and provisional, and temporary. And it will distinguish well between measurements, theories and speculations. Such scientists are likely to gain respect and trust.
Unfortunately like doctors before them, many scientists have reached beyond their reasonable limitations and doubts, and moved more into advocacy or science policy. They have moved beyond the science, or used it to make political or philosophical points, rather than to advance knowledge. And when science is seen to be serving an agenda, it loses its analytic neutrality and epistemic strength and becomes one more discourse amongst many. Most people will pick this kind of behaviour up, and a scientist involved in it becomes progressively less scientific, and more like anyone else who holds an opinion.
The other problem for scientists within any one discipline is that science always involves collaboration across sectors. The measurements may all be of for example temperatures, but the analysis of the data is a statistical exercise, and likely needs expertise from beyond a small in group. Collins sees small groups of experts as being worthy of respect- they have interactional expertise-but I think he rather privileges in-group forms of knowledge when what may actually be needed is wide review of findings- from multiple perspectives. Collins sees peer review as being valid whereas the evidence is growing that it is a way of showing fools seldom differ, and of enforcing uniformity rather than a good means of selecting papers for their intrinsic interest and validity. The potential of the web to use crowd based post-publication review- with many people from many disciplines contributing to the review is not considered in this book.
This book is interesting, and worth reading. it has an interesting account of expertise and how it is established. I don't think it gets its description fully complete or accurate, and I think our concepts of expertise are ripe for change. The internet is going to drive much of this change- by making more ideas, views and critiques freely available across the web, and raising more questions about an editor's selection of papers and reviewers.
Enjoy reading this book- it's a good spur to thinking- and be your own expert in assessing its merits.