This is the long-delayed second part of a two-part review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture: A Conversation About Science (2001). In the first part I argued that we—by which I mean, roughly speaking, scientists and sociologists of science—would more easily reach agreement about science if sociologists acknowledged their past relativism and if everyone was charitable in debate. It would also help if we set aside the interesting but irrelevant question of whether the truth of a belief can (partly) explain the belief. In this post I make three other recommendations: revive the internal/external distinction, or something like it; be clear about how our visions of science differ, if we think they do differ; and beware tacit philosophy of science. Revive the internal/external distinction. Gravity waves are tiny ripples in space-time created by bodies with mass. In 1970, several experts believed that the physicist Joseph Weber had detected gravity waves in his laboratory. By 1980, no experts believed this except Weber. What changed their minds? One plausible answer is that the experts made many sincere and careful attempts to replicate Weber’s results, and these replications failed. Another answer is that there was only one such failure, and that it was carried out by a physicist who happened to have more polemical skill and social prestige than Weber. The former answer says that the experts followed the evidence, and the latter answer that they followed their most powerful colleague. For want of better terms, let’s call the former an ‘internal’ answer and the latter an ‘external’ one. I don’t know which answer is the right one in the case of Weber, but we should be mindful of the difference between the two answers, because otherwise the science wars will never end. The reason is that scientists tend to play up internal explanations of true beliefs, whereas sociologists emphasise the external ones. If we do not distinguish between these two kinds of explanation, we will not even be able to characterise this disagreement. Worse, we may end up exaggerating the extent of the disagreement. Most of the contributors to The One Culture do not make any distinction along the lines of the internal/external one. More often they distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ factors, which they too often see as synonymous with ‘scientific’ and ‘social’ ones. For example, Michael Lynch takes ‘social factors’ to refer to ‘a range of personal, circumstantial, and institutional considerations,’ and ‘natural factors’ to mean ‘objective reality, nature itself, or properties of the physical world’ (271). What is missing in Lynch’s distinction is the idea that scientists’ beliefs might result from a third kind of cause, namely experiments undertaken by scientists and the deductions made by them—the meat and drink of internal historians of science. No progress can be made if one party (sociologists) does not recognise, even conceptually, the preferred explanations of the other party (scientists). When sociologists do recognise the scientists’ preferred explanations, they tend to absorb them into the category of ‘society’ or ‘culture.’ This has the effect of obscuring points of agreement between scientists and sociologists, since scientists do not think ‘experiments and deductions’ when they see the words ‘society’ and ‘culture.’ This is not due to any deep misunderstanding on the part of the scientists. It is just not how the words ‘society’ and ‘culture’ are usually used when talking about science. The point may be illustrated by a dispute between Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, on the one hand, and the physicist H. David Mermin on the other. Collins and Pinch wrote an account of early experimental tests of the theory of relativity in which they argued that those tests were inconclusive. They maintained that it was not these tests, but rather the ‘culture of life in the physics community’, that persuaded physicists to believe the theory. I leave the rest to Mermin:
What this means depends, of course, on what ‘culture’ is taken to include. If, as I now understand Collins and Pinch’s intent, ‘the culture of life in the physics community’ refers to the cumulative impact of all theoretical and experimental work bearing on relativity since 1905, then [their thesis] is correct. But their readers...are likely to conclude that the momentum was generated by nothing more than many years of growing more and more comfortable with the [two inconclusive tests].Be clear about other disagreements. In my previous post I said that the most visible disagreement in The One Culture (about whether the truth of a belief can explain the belief) is not a real disagreement. And in this post I have argued that the real disagreement (between internal and external explanations of true beliefs) is scarcely visible in the book. So, are there any disagreements in the book that are both real and visible? Collins thinks there are, but I’m not convinced. In a chapter near the end of the book, Collins says that sociologists prefer the ‘rough diamonds’ of science to the ‘crown jewels’ of science. He summarises his point by saying that sociology ‘reduces the quasilogical authority of science’, but really he draws several contrasts that need to be treated separately. None of them pick out a clear disagreement between scientists and sociologists. Process v product. One of these contrasts is that, whereas Collins studies the early, uncertain stages of scientific debates, scientists such as Weinberg (who seems to be the foil that Collins has in mind in this chapter) emphasise the polished theories that emerge from this process. This is a difference in research interests, not a disagreement. Skills v knowledge. Collins says that he stresses the ‘assiduousness, experience, skill and virtuosity’ of scientists, and the fact that they are ‘the kind of people whom it makes sense to trust’ because they have ‘the right kind of expertise.’ By contrast, scientists play up their ‘privileged access to reality’ and their ‘extensive store of knowledge about the way the world works.’ Whether this is a disagreement depends, as ever, on how the terms are defined. The disagreement vanishes if scientists say that it is precisely their ‘experience’ and ‘skill’ that gives them ‘privileged access to reality.’ Collins himself suggests that ‘the right kind of expertise’ might consist in making ‘experimentally or observationally based claims’ rather than ‘book-based claims.’ This claim is remarkable for its conventionality. It looks like all that quasi-sociological talk of ‘trust’ and ‘skill’ and ‘expertise’ is really just another way of saying that we should believe what scientists say about nature because they study it directly instead of relying on bookish authorities. In short, Nullis in verbia. Simple v complicated justifications. Collins says that ‘scientific procedures do not speak for themselves but have to be judged and interpreted’, and that ‘experiments and theories [are] less decisive in bringing scientific controversies to a close than uninvolved scientists and others generally think they are.’ His idea seems to be that the intellectual side of scientific debates are more complicated than scientists make out—he is saying that it is not just a matter of doing one or two experiments and drawing the obvious conclusion. The problem is that none of the scientists in the volume deny this, not even Weinberg. In fact, one of them (Mermin) turns the tables and accuses Collins of giving an insufficiently complex account of the early evidence for the theory of relativity. Social v scientific education. Collins says that the sociology of science ‘turns the public understanding of science into a matter of social education rather than scientific education.’ What he means is that non-scientists lack the time and expertise to carry out a thorough assessment of the evidence on either side of scientific debates over such things as global warming and genetically modified foods. We rely on the testimony of the experts, which means that we need to decide who are the experts on the debate in question. This is not a trivial problem, especially when the experts appear to disagree. Collins implies that scientists have trouble understanding these points. He should have another look at the following passage from the scientists Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal:
When confronted with experts, any individual or small group of individuals is in a difficult situation. There is no way to find the time and the means to check even a small fraction of the experts’ assertions. And yet, in many practical situations we have to decide whether or not to trust their claims. How should we proceed? This is a truly interesting and difficult question … [and one where] many sociological considerations become relevant (46).Beware of tacit philosophy of science. Michael Lynch writes that the science wars are ‘a metaphysical battle fought by conscripts who have limited training in the martial arts of philosophy’ (53). Lynch says that the debate would be improved if the participants recognised that they were arguing over questions that have challenged philosophers for centuries, if not millenia. Some of the questions are metaphysical: do causes and categories really exist in nature, or are they just tools that help us to understand nature? Other questions are epistemological: what is the best way to justify scientific theories, and are our justifications strong enough to give us confidence in the existence and nature of unobservable entities like quarks and DNA? Lynch is right that these are fraught topics, and that anyone who wants to discuss them seriously should have a least a passing acquaintance with the relevant writings of trained philosophers. However, to judge from The One Culture, Lynch is mistaken if he thinks that scientists and sociologists still see these issues as a major front in the science wars. None of those issues appear in the list of ‘open questions’ that the editors provide at the end of the book (299-300). And, as I mentioned in my previous post, the only avowed relativists in the book are methodological ones. This reticence is both encouraging and vexing. It is encouraging because it suggests that, pace Lynch, scientists and sociologists are arguing over topics that they have some special competence in, rather than ineptly reproducing the debates of professional philosophers. The reticence is vexing because it may conceal more disagreements than it resolves. Collins, with his stress on 'skill' and 'expertise', often sounds like an instrumentalist, ie. someone who thinks that scientific theories are great instruments for predicting and controlling nature but who is loath to take the next step and say that the successful ones are probably true. Steven Shapin, for all his asides about the impotence of philosophy, defends a thesis that is nothing if not philosophical, namely that there is no single method that characterises all forms of science. Several contributors imply that the sociology of science has shown that science does not achieve 'certainty', a claim that is both normative and epistemological. If we make such claims then we should be clear that we are making them and that they are, at least in part, philosophical claims. This would not solve the problem of how non-philosophers can reach agreement on philosophical questions. But it would at least clarify where the disagreements lie. *** The stated aims of The One Culture were to get scientists and sociologists talking to each-other again, and to get clear about their points of agreement and disagreement. The upshot of this review is that the book achieves the former goal but has mixed success with the latter. To sum up my criticisms:
- the editors ignore the main source of agreement between the two parties, namely the fact that sociologists have retreated from their full-blooded relativism of the 1970s and 1980s. - the editors misidentify methodological relativism as a major source of disagreement. Even Harry Collins admits that the truth can help to explain a belief, and anyway the interesting question is not whether truths can explain true beliefs but whether social factors routinely play a decisive role in the formation of true beliefs. - The One Culture barely addresses the latter question (about social factors), which is not surprising given that most contributors do not acknowledge the distinction between social and intellectual factors. - Collins identifies another persistent disagreement, concerning 'crown jewels' and 'rough diamonds,' but this distinction is overdrawn, as we see when we unpack the gemmological metaphor. - some contributors hint at more substantial disagreements over such things as instrumentalism and the unity of science, but these are philosophical questions that scientists and sociologists cannot resolve on their own.The good news is that the question about the decisiveness of social factors is a question for scientists and sociologists, and there is no reason why they should not be able to answer it together—as long as they can agree to distinguish social factors from intellectual ones. Expand post.