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SEE Q&A (2): Expertise and Authority September 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.

We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: Your main concern in moving in the direction of SEE relates to a long-standing concern with the authority that knowledge bestows, and particularly Wave Two’s concern with dismantling the notion that scientific knowledge possesses an authority inherent to itself.  Would you say that the problem of authority has been the central motivation behind the sociology of science?  Is the unlimited extension of expertise to “folk knowledge” “folk wisdom” , which you criticize, a logical consequence of the Wave Two approach?

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: Chacun a son gout.  We can’t speak for others, but for us the problem has never been one of authority.  Instead, what is at the centre are the questions posed by the philosophy and the sociology of knowledge:  How do we have knowledge and is there any way of making it secure?  Understanding how science works is essential for understanding these more fundamental questions. It is true that the motivations of some of those who came into science studies was more directly connected with ideas of socially responsible science—the Society for Social Studies of Science’s most prestigious award is named after J.D. Bernal after all—but for us any changes to the idea of science have emerged as a consequence of the uncovering of the social nature of knowledge not the other way round.

For Collins, the discovery, in the early 1970s, that science could not have the authority and certainty that the old models of Wave One suggested, because replication by itself could not settle disputes, was just that—a discovery (albeit an exciting one given the dominance of Wave One thinking at the time).    In some ways, it is a shame that science cannot live up to the old model—life would be so much simpler.  Of course, those whose critique is driven by discomfort with the authority of science are likely to be delighted with the complete collapse of scientific authority that appears to be attainable by rigorous application of the philosophical scepticism of Wave Two.  For example, it can be used to justify what we term the `folk wisdom view’—which romanticises the lay citizen and assumes that a robust common sense can solve all problems.  But drawing on the `common sense of the people’ is not something to be done lightly: the phrase was used to terrible effect in Nazi Germany (e.g. see Richard Evans, 2005, The Third Reich in Power London: Alan Lane, p. 444).  In any case, it is hard to see how one can make out that ordinary folk are wise in the ways of technology if experts aren’t.  Our position is that we want the best of both worlds—democratic accountability and scrutiny but in a world where science and expertise retain significant cultural authority.  Both extremes—unlimited technocracy on the one hand and technological populism on the other, are too appalling to contemplate.

In stating these preferences, it is important to separate `science and technology’ from `scientists and technologists.’  The argument is that science, technology, and expert knowledge more generally, ought to retain a substantial degree of cultural authority in a good society.  Science should seen as the best way of making knowledge about the natural world even though it cannot and should not ever regain the pinnacle it occupied under Wave One.  This means that scientists and technologists should be recognised as experts but that they should not be granted political power by that fact.  Democracy always has the last word: under Wave Three, it would be a democracy in which science and technology continue to be dominant elements in our culture.

The motivations here may be naïve but, as we argue in the 2002 paper (1), it is intentionally so.  The claim is that a society driven by the old fashioned values and aspirations of scientific thinking—an expanded version of the Mertonian norms—could be a good society.  Again, this is a statement of preference: it seems to us that, even if the ANT-type Machiavellian model of science as a continuation of politics by other means works as a description, it does us all a disservice as a prescription.  Cynicism of this kind has been used as a licence to abandon scientific aspirations and replace them with realpolitik and political posturing.  Galileo standing up to the power of Church and State for the sake of the truth is the right justificatory myth for the good society, not the cynical, collaborationist, alliance-building-with-the-powerful, idea that many people believe follows from the Second Wave.  Hobbes may have been right in terms of the description of science but Boyle (or the mythical Boyle) was right in terms of what we should aspire to.


(1) H. M. Collins and Robert Evans, “The Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience” Social Studies of Science 32 (2002): 235-296.


1. Theodore L. Brown - October 5, 2008

I like a lot of E/C’s comments. I agree entirely that understanding how science works is essential for understanding how to evaluate scientific claims. In this respect I fall back on such eminent ancients as Michael Polanyi and Robert Merton, who got a lot right about the ways in which scientific knowledge is processed and evaluated, about the social organization within science. Despite the passage of time, and many changed relationships between science and the larger society, the world of scientific research, and the social dynamics within science are not so different from 50 years ago. I agree also that denigrating the trustworthiness and reliability of scientific knowledge, and demonizing scientists and the scientific enterprise, gets us anywhere. I really like the lines: “The argument is that science, technology, and expert knowledge more generally, ought to retain a substantial degree of cultural authority in a good society. Science should seen as the best way of making knowledge about the natural world even though it cannot and should not ever regain the pinnacle it occupied under Wave One.”
The scientific world, and individual scientists, are often quite arrogant in their notions that there is a special quality to scientific rationality that grants it a degree of epistemic superiority generally. However, that tendency is not the major issue affecting the cultural authority of science in modern society. It is rather that science has fallen prey with other forms of intellectual life to a rampant anti-intellectualism that finds expression in the contests for authority that arise between science and other societal sectors such as religion, law, legislative governance, executive governance, and public culture.
The most critical issue, I think, is that of scientific autonomy. Whatever we do, we somehow need to protect the core autonomy of disinterested scientific research, or we will have killed the goose. Philosophers of science have not made much progress on this; in fact, such proposals as Kitcher’s “well-ordered science” are at their core greatly damaging to the essence of the scientific enterprise.

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