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SEE Q&A (5): Policymaking in Waves 2 and 3 October 20, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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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: The problem of expertise in policymaking has long been a concern to scholars such as Sheila Jasanoff (The Fifth Branch, Science at the Bar, etc.) and Yaron Ezrahi (Descent of Icarus [out of print]), and, more recently, for Bruno Latour (The Politics of Nature).  Drawing on the insights of SSK, they have argued that scientific experts cannot be called on to offer non-politicized policy recommendations, because scientific consensus-building is itself a political process.  Instead (to paint with a broad brush), effective policymaking can only take place when facts and political concerns are negotiated simultaneously.  Pretending otherwise only opens the door to the systematic sowing of doubt concerning the validity of even a large-majority consensus (as we can see on classic issues such as global warming, the cigarette-cancer link, and evolution in science education).

I notice you don’t engage with this literature directly.  Is this a fair reading of the literature, and do you see yourselves as extending it, addressing difficulties presented by it, or answering different questions entirely?

Rob Evans

Rob Evans

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: To repeat, Wave 2 of Science Studies shows (and Collins has made a considerable contribution to showing it) that it is impossible to have a pure science free of the influence of ‘extra-scientific factors’ including politics.  To that extent all technological decisions in the public domain must be influenced by politics whether we notice it or not.  Where Wave 3 departs from the previous work is in what are taken to be the implications of these discoveries.  The predominant mode of thinking coming out of Wave 2 is that, because scientific and technological decisions are a continuation of politics, the ideas of a scientific/technological decision on the one hand, and a political decision on the other, cannot be separated.  It follows that Wave 2 treats the very notion of the scientific and the political as constructed.

Wave 3 says it is a mistake to draw this implication.  Though it is the case that there can be no pure science separate from politics it does not follow that politics and science are the same or that institutions for technological decision-making are simply political institutions albeit with technological topics.  Wave 3 says that the science and the politics of technological decisions can be separated and that institutions can and should be designed so to keep them separate.  It is, perhaps, because our critics cannot imagine how the ‘separatist’ aim of Wave 3 can be compatible with the ‘inseparability’ findings of Wave 2 that they have a tendency to claim that we are simply demanding a return to Wave 1 or, failing that, championing the interests of capitalism.  For example, Brian Wynne has recently said this of us:

… authors such as … Collins and Evans, seem to think that the only relevant and valid public meanings in relation to science, are ones effectively given by science, so that the richness of legitimate different meanings, issues and concerns, including legitimately conflictual ones, is reduced to the singular dominant instrumental one of institutional science, usually wedded to its patronage interests of commercial ambition, and of knowledge as an economic instrument.

[Wynne, Brian, ‘Public Participation in Science and Technology: Performing and Obscuring a Political-Conceptual Category Mistake’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, 1/1 (2007): 99-110, at p. 108.]

We have never held or advocated such a position.  Not only do Wynne’s remarks represent a brutally uncharitable reading of our work, implying we had suddenly undergone some Jekyll and Hyde transformation, they also fail to describe the world in which we live.  Even the most casual sociological analysis reveals that social life could not go on without exactly the combination of inseparability and separation that we are talking about (as we pointed out in the last paragraph of the response to question 4).  In fact, there are many institutions where two inseparable elements have to be treated as separate if social life as we know it is to continue.  Consider sport and money or justice and power; ethical beliefs and social context; and so on.  ‘Sociology 101’ shows that the outcomes of sporting competitions and legal trials are influenced by wealth and politics.  The only thing that is special about Wave 2 is that it applied the same kind of analysis to science—Wave 2 is just the continuation of the sociology of knowledge into the territory where Mannheim and others thought it could not trespass.

The mistake made by those who take the findings of Wave 2 to mean that the institution of science should no longer be separated from politics is revealed simply by the fact that,  outside of some interpretations of Marxism, a similar conclusion has not been drawn in respect of those other institutions to which the sociology of knowledge has been applied.  Were the same reasoning to be applied to sport or justice, we would no longer need to worry about the fairness of sporting competitions or legal trials because political institutions could assess the wealth and power and worth of the contestants and assign victory and justice accordingly—or perhaps victory in the sporting arena or the courtroom would be decided by popular opinion.  These claims make no sense for sport or justice.  On the contrary, if sport and justice are to remain recognisable then ‘external influence’  has to be minimised—that is why athletes are tested for drugs, ‘cheating’ is punished, and it is thought proper that talented athletes from poor countries are allowed access to the training facilities and techniques of rich countries.

Wave 3, which we never imagined would cause fuss or resentment, makes the same argument for science.  Wave 2 ‘levels the playing field in respect of science somewhat—in the light of Wave 2 science can never again achieve the pinnacle of authority it once had—just as justice and the other institutions cannot be seen as absolutely pure after sociology 101.  Wave 3 stresses that in other respects it is also sociology-of-knowledge business as usual.  The sociology of knowledge is not a horror-film monster marching across societies and destroying institutions—it may shed new light on how institutions work and render them puzzling, but it doesn’t destroy them.

Wave 3 introduces a couple of new notions to show how the sociology of knowledge works.  The first of these is the distinction between implicit and explicit politics; the second is the move from the analysis of truth to the analysis of expertise.

The implicit/explicit distinction was initially worked out using Steve Shapin’s analysis of the influence of local Edinburgh politics on studies of the brain:  the politics influenced scientists’ understandings of the brain but we do not say better science would be done faster or better by including more local Edinburgh politics.  Likewise, we do not say that the suppression of Einstein’s relativity in Nazi Germany or the promotion of Lysenkoism in the USSR were good because the politics in each case was made an explicit part of the scientific process.  To repeat—one cannot get rid of the intrinsic politics from science but this does not licence the importation of explicit politics – it does not licence the idea that science is politics by other means.

Harry Collins

Harry Collins

The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic politics—or between the technical and political phase—shows what must be done if a space is to preserved in which some elements in a technological decision are to be treated as though they were purely technical and in which overt political influence is to be minimised.  As we stress over and over again, this does not mean that a political decision can emerge from such a space—the space provides only an input, which is as apolitical as it is possible to be, into what, in the last resort, has to be a political decision.

The second new idea—that of focussing on expertise rather than truth—was invoked to try to answer the question: ‘If the results of science are not sure, how can we use them in our decision making?’  The answer is to accept the uncertainty and contestation of science but find the ‘best for practical purposes if fallible’ way through the competition for truth by assessing the expertise of the parties.  Truth, as it were, is equivalent to justice in some Platonic realm, expertise is equivalent to justice as it is practised in the courts.  This is not a good solution for science but it is a workable solution for policy makers.

One could see this in the light of that part of the answer to Question 1 that reprises the `Epistemological Chicken’ debate.  Wave 3 maintains the purity of SSK, the job of which is to understand how scientific truth is made, in spite of the fact that Wave 3 deals with policy-making.  Whereas the ANT/Pickering approaches are compromises, allowing in the influence of the material, SSK and Wave 3 remain resolutely uncompromising—as a social scientist one must analyse the making of truth solely in terms of the social.  But policy-making is not SSK: policy-making requires that the findings of science be taken seriously even before they have become truths.  Wave 3 deals with this by sticking to the Epistemological Chicken viewpoint—namely that, except in exceptional cases, the influence of the material world is the business of scientists and engineers, not the business of social scientists.  Therefore Wave 3 provides a means for policy-makers to decide which people to consult when they want to get the best possible (though inevitably uncertain) advice about the impact of the material world—the method is to assess expertise.  It follows that if you want to know about the material impact of door closers ask an engineer, not Bruno Latour; if you want to know about the behaviour of scallops, ask a fisherman or a fish biologist, not Michel Callon.  It is so strange that it could ever have been thought to be otherwise.

The exceptional cases, in which the social scientist may be able to use social science expertise to bear directly on the truth of scientific claims, arise when the social arrangements in which the science is conducted are pathological.  The treatment of the theory of relativity in Germany and genetics in Russia are examples.  The treatment of the health impact of tobacco smoke by scientists sponsored by the tobacco lobby is another such case.  And we believe the panic over MMR vaccine in Britain and Thabo Mbeki’s treatment of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa can also be resolved by social analysis (the Mbeki case will be discussed at greater length in question 7).


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