Harry Collins, a founder of the field of “science studies,” explains why we should listen to scientists on climate change, vaccines, and HIV-AIDS.
Jenny McCarthy, who once remarked that she began her autism research at the “University of Google” Scott Roth/Invision/AP
Remember “Climategate“? It was the 2009 nonscandal scandal in which a trove of climate scientists’ emails, pilfered from the University of East Anglia in the UK, were used to call all of modern climate research into question. Why? Largely because a cursory reading of those emails—showing, for example, climate scientists frankly discussing how to respond to burdensome data requests and attacks on their work—revealed a side of researchers that most people aren’t really used to seeing. Suddenly, these “experts” looked more like ordinary human beings who speak their minds, who sometimes have emotions and rivalries with one another, and (shocker) don’t really like people who question the validity of their knowledge.
In other words, Climategate demonstrated something that sociologists of science have know for some time—that scientists are mortals, just like all the rest of us. “What was being exposed was not something special and local but ‘business as usual’ across the whole scientific world,” writes Cardiff University scholar Harry Collins, one of the original founders of the field of “science studies,” in his masterful new book, Are We All Scientific Experts Now? But that means that Climategate didn’t undermine the case for human-caused global warming at all, says Collins. Rather, it demonstrated why it is so hard for ordinary citizens to understand what is going on inside the scientific community—much less to snipe and criticize it from the outside. They simply don’t grasp how researchers work on a day-to-day basis, or what kind of shared knowledge exists within the group.
That’s a case that Collins makes not only about the climate issue, but also to rebut vaccine deniers, HIV-AIDS skeptics, and all manner of scientific cranks and mavericks. All of them, he argues, are failing to understand what’s so important and powerful about a group of experts coming to a scientific consensus. “If we devalue scientific attitudes and scientific values, we’re going to find ourselves living in an unpleasant society,” explains Collins on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast.
Defenses of scientific expertise have been published before—but the source of this particular defense is what is likely to surprise a lot of people. There was a time, after all, when people like Collins—sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and other scholars studying science itself—were deemed to be researchers’ worst enemies, rather than their staunchest defenders. The so-called “science wars” between these two camps peaked with the 1996 “Sokal Hoax,” in which one New York University physicist, Alan Sokal, got so fed up with so-called “postmodern” critics of scientific knowledge that he spoofed them by submitting a gibberish-laden article, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to one of their own journals. The paper got published, to Sokal’s delight.