How do you define an expert scientist?

Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins

Harry Collins is a professor at Cardiff University, where he lectures on the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and his areas of research include: the Nature of Scientific Knowledge and knowledge in general; public Understanding of Science; and the Nature of Skills and Expertise, amongst other topics.  He is one of our foremost thinkers in this area apparently, and this provocative little book is intended to challenge a lot of thinking about the nature of ‘expertise.’

He starts by throwing a few quandaries at us – for instance: ‘The quantum theory is said to be the most accurate theory ever, and it has quite counter-commonsensical consequences, thought absurd by Einstein, that turn out to be true – such as the instant ‘communication’ that happens under quantum entanglement.‘ (had to get that in after Jim Al Khalili talked about it at a talk I went to a couple of weeks ago).

He talks about ‘Climategate’ – the chatty and informal email exchanges between researchers at UEA about climate change which, when leaked, were leapt upon by every climate change sceptic out there.  It’s not until later in the book, that he reveals how they were taken totally out of context.  He refers to the scandal of MMR vaccines and autism that has led to a resurgence in measles, and the fact that a high profile celeb in the US said it made her child autistic, and people believed her, not the experts. Similarly the South African government’s decision not to offer anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women with HIV.

Having set out these challenges to science, he goes on to explain how his own field SSK developed – there have been three waves.  He says: ‘In the 1950s, with radar, penicillin, nylon and all the rest, it was impossible to doubt the pre-eminence of science as a way of making knowledge. In this kind of atmosphere the job of history, philosophy and sociology of science was clear: explain how the scientific miracle worked.’  In the 1960s, orthodoxy was challenged.  In the 1970s SSK as a discipline began to take hold, and Collins himself was at the forefront. Science and the humanities were not so different after all, and ‘by the middle of the 1980s, there was less and less special about science. For those influenced by these academics – and the influence became stronger after the arts and humanities discovered the literary critique of science – the bar had fallen to the ground and we could all be scientific experts.’

This leads to the major theme of the book – what defines an expert. Well, Collins has his theories, and can categorise types of experts into a whole range of types.  At the bottom all of us are experts by osmosis at living in our own surroundings – he uses the naivety of The Midnight Cowboy arriving in town from the country – this is a ‘ubiquitous expertise’. So too speaking your native language. From then on in, it gets a lot more complicated and dry, if not a little confusing. It certainly confused me about my place in the scientific scheme of things!

I have a degree in materials science and after university worked in the microelectronics materials division of a chemical company for years – becoming quite a technical expert in my little niche – which was about getting the best performance from the particular materials I worked with that the R&D guys developed. Then I broadened my horizons, am now working in a school as a lab technician – where I am an expert in home-made bubble mix and the best slime recipes for science club.  I retain, however, a passion for science – hence embracing the local science festival, and I take an interest in programmes, books, and magazines etc – but would never dream to claim any expertise other than a good basic understanding outside my particular field. I may have been a proper expert once, but am not now – I’m into popular science, but I don’t mind that at all.

Where I got a bit cross with Prof Collins was that he wants to elevate the role of scientist back to that of the boffin in the white coat; for science to regain its respect. It is, perhaps, an admirable aim – however real life is not like that.  We are criminally short of scientists and engineers in this country now. Making science seem too difficult is never going to encourage teenagers into it. We do need the top scientists Collins argues for desperately, but we also need lots more everyday ones to keep the engine running.

Surely, popularising science is a good thing?  Or is a little knowledge just too dangerous a thing, as the cases mentioned above would suggest?  See, I told you I was confused, and this short book raised more questions than it answered for me. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, pub Feb 2014, Polity Press, 140pp incl notes and indexes, paperback.

7 thoughts on “How do you define an expert scientist?

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Very interesting piece, Annabel. I have no scientific training at all, but find programmes and books about the sciences fascinating. I can see the danger of too many self-educated experts, but I agree completely that science should not be remote from the general public. There is also danger in having the boffins detached from the needs of real people. It’s a knotty problem and it sounds like this book really didn’t address enough of the issues!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I think its purpose is to provoke, and ask all the questions – but I would have liked some answers. He does have some interesting cases where self-educated experts are useful – but they have to have understand enough to sort all the wheat from the chaff.

    • Dark Puss says:

      Hi, as someone who works primarily on trying to understand the origins of the Universe via high energy particle collisions I am always wary of the utilitarian view of science. Over many decades (centuries perhaps) fundamental research has been often criticised for being remote or irrelevant but had we spent all our time making better candles we would have just that, better candles and we wouldn’t have new sources of light such as lasers, LED, fluorescent, noble-gas discharge etc. It is never possible to say what the really life-changing (literally in many cases, X-rays spring to mind) spin-offs from fundamental research will be nor how quickly they might arise. Governments love to try to guess the future and target research “appropriately” but I think the evidence shows that in the long run allowing people to pursue fundamental understanding for its own sake will produce the big breakthroughs that change our world for the better for all of humanity.

      Part of our job is to communicate to everyone what we are doing, why we think it is important (that does not equal “useful” to my mind) and also the excitement that we feel in being part of increasing our understanding of the world we live in.

      • Annabel (gaskella) says:

        I was hoping you’d comment Peter – thank you I totally agree with the case for fundamental research – it is essential to developing understanding with progress as a by-product – and not everyone can be this kind of an expert. They shouldn’t be totally remote though so we need the good communicators too.

  2. farmlanebooks says:

    Interesting! I’m not sure what to think either. I have a degree in chemistry and most people I meet hate science/think it is too complicated for them. The problem is that a science degree is very difficult and very few would be able to achieve it. There needs to be another way into a science career. It isn’t necessary to understand quantum mechanics to be able to do most jobs in science and it would be good if there were other ways of joining these scientific companies.

    It would also be good if they made part-time jobs available for women with children as there is a criminal loss of talent from the scientific industry when women stop to look after babies…but that is a whole other argument…!!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      That’s my feeling too Jackie – we need everyday scientists (and engineers) as well as the top research ones. But we need to get more teenagers to do it at A-level, it’s an uphill struggle. Agree re the childcare too! (that’s why I’m now a school lab tech – term-time only).

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