The scientist who studies scientists—An interview with Harry Collins

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12 Responses to “The scientist who studies scientists—An interview with Harry Collins”

  1. daen says:

    You have to make policy with something less than perfection. Sometimes experts will be wrong, but what else are you going to do? Will you just ask your mum, or flip a coin?

    And then there’s the baleful influence of political ideology …

    I remember an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” (The Greasy Pole), where a huge contract to manufacture propanol is about to be awarded to a company in a marginal constituency, which, of course, PM Jim Hacker is in favour of. However, the process uses the (fictional) compound metadioxin, which is inert (“wouldn’t ‘urt a fly” as Bernard Woolley mutters at one point) but which the Oxbridge-educated non-scientists running the civil service (and the LSE-educated Hacker) cannot distinguish from the decidedly non-inert and toxic dioxin (with the Seveso disaster being explicitly mentioned), even going so far as to ignore the reassurances of a professional chemist (“about as dangerous as flour” is his summary of metadioxin’s toxicity), and are concerned that this could adversely affect popular opinion (leading to lost votes, and possibly – shock horror – a lost constituency!) And so, a report is published which declares metadioxin potentially dangerous, and the contract is cancelled.

    Although this is, of course, a fictional situation, you just know that this scene is played out around the world, day after day – politicians and professional managers ignoring the advice of scientists and engineers, because it is politically expedient to do so.

    I loved “Yes, Prime Minister” for its wordplay; when one character is asked how it feels to have moved from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, he replies “like moving from the animals to the vegetables”.

  2. Louis A. says:

    There’s more to this than just the sociology of science. Charles Bazerman and Carol Berkenkotter are just two figures from writing studies who have dedicated large-scale research to to studying the “sciences.”

    Carol Berkenkotter on Google Scholar: http://bit.ly/h2DxGm

    Charles Bazerman on Google Scholar: http://bit.ly/i00bBd

  3. Anonymous says:

    And if a scientist is the universe evolving to the point in which it begins to study and break down the dynamics of itself then this guy is something really interesting.

    • Kimmo says:

      And if a scientist is the universe evolving to the point in which it begins to study and break down the dynamics of itself then this guy is something really interesting.

      Mmm, recursive. I’m pretty sure the Universe is a dirty great fractal…

  4. Thoughtsmith says:

    There was an interesting series on science studies on the CBC program “Ideas” a couple years ago, which is available online:

    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2009/01/02/how-to-think-about-science-part-1—24-listen/

    Well worth a listen, I think.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oh great – science by consensus (see where he’s talking about “climate change”). Wonderful, we’re going to throw out true scientific method and replace it with politics. Hello dark ages!

  6. namnezia says:

    This very similar to what Bruno Latour did in the 60′s and 70′s. He’s published several classic books about scientists, the scientific process and the social basis of scientific facts. “Laboratory Life” is one of his better-known books on the topic.

  7. rundorkasrun says:

    Great interview. This kind of inquiry goes beyond sociology, in fact, extending to what’s called “science studies” in academia. Lots of disciplines are involved. Reasonable summary here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_studies

  8. Anonymous says:

    David Bohm has some interesting thoughts on scientists’ behavior as well.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I saw a lot of problems and misinformation arising from journalists speaking to scientists as if they were experts in everything, rather than experts in one specific field. For instance, somebody interviewing a nuclear engineer and asking them questions that were better suited to a health physicist….”

    As Dr. Collins said, “Spot on.”

    The media also has a strong tendendy to talk to academics and advocates versus those who had actual experience working in the nuclear industry. The real nuclear world is a whole different ballgame than what’s in the textbooks, as covered in my novel “Rad Decision”. (Free online – just google it.)

    Good things to discuss.

    James Aach, longtime engineer in the atomic biz. (“Experienced-based expert” I guess.)

  10. earthmother says:

    This is the most common sense I have ever heard from a sociologist. I am really impressed and have passed this site on to several people. Thanks for posting.

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