Thursday, April 09, 2009


Right and Righter

Harry Collins, director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University, had an essay in Nature decrying post-modernist and social constructivist criticisms of science. Collins himself had "contributed" to that criticism by "demonstrat[ing] that scientists could not always check a result by simply repeating it." Collins recommends a "third wave" (after the "first wave" of scientific positivism and the "second wave" of post-modernism) where both scientists and sociologists agree that their views are not absolute and "godlike."

By definition, the logic of a sceptical argument defeats any amount of evidence; one can deduce that no inference from observation can ever be certain, that one cannot be sure that the future will be like the past, and that nothing is exactly like anything else, making the process of experimental repetition more complicated than it seems. The work of sociologists was simply to show how this played out in the practice of the laboratory.

Nowadays, however, I wonder if the science warriors might have been right to be worried about the (unintended) consequences of what social constructivists were doing. We may have got too much of what we wished for. The founding myth of the individual scientist using evidence to stand against the power of church or state — which has a central role in Western societies — has been replaced with a model in which Machiavellian scientists engage in artful collaboration with the powerful.
Collins points to the example of South African President Thabo Mbeki's policies denying anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant mothers and correctly, I think, diagnoses the problem:

... Mbeki's ideas about the danger of anti-retrovirals were developed by reading the views of a small group of maverick scientists on the Internet and advising his ministers to do the same. But the view gained from the Internet is not always the view developed within the scientific community. Although in principle the logic of the mavericks' position cannot be defeated, a policy-maker should accept the position of those who share in the tacit knowledge of the expert community.
Certainly we see the same process at work with the acceptance by so many in the US of Intelligent Design Creationism and its list of 700 "Dissenters from Darwin" or Sen. James Imhofe's list of "650 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims."

However, as John Dupré and Paul Griffiths point out, Collins himself has fallen into the same trap, confusing the consensus view of the philosophy of science with an outlier:

Collins dismisses philosophy of science as a 'first wave of science studies' largely coinciding with post-war confidence in science and superseded by the work of sociologists of knowledge like himself. In fact, mainstream philosophy of science — which was being developed before the Second World War by Rudolph Carnap, Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach and others — remains a thriving discipline in most universities. It teaches students that science is neither the 'voice of a God' nor merely the view of one social group, just as Collins advocates.

The only contemporary 'philosopher' Collins mentions (though not by name) is Steve Fuller, whose statement to a US court that intelligent design is science Collins uses as evidence that post-modern scepticism pervades science studies. However, Fuller is a professor of sociology. All the philosophers of science who, like Fuller, were witnesses or advisers in the Dover Area School District case (see Nature 439, 6–7; 2006) appeared for the other side, supporting evolution.

Working in an interdisciplinary research centre alongside historians and sociologists of biology and medicine, we can assure Collins that post-modern science sceptics are thin on the ground. The 'science wars' of the 1990s were whipped up by a selective focus on the work of a very few scholars, many of whom did not work in the philosophy, history or sociology of science. Let us hope that Collins's remarks do not reignite this unproductive controversy.
Right medicine, wrong patient.

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