We cannot live by scientism alone

Earlier this month in an essay in the journal Nature, Cardiff-based sociologist of science Harry Collins offered his thoughts on a possible resolution to the epistemological battle between natural science and the humanities.

Harry Collins is a social scientist whose work I value and respect. He clearly understands natural science and its practitioners, and strongly supports their work. Collins’ latest article discusses the discipline of ‘science studies’, and in particular the transition from modernism to the cynical post-modernism popular among many academics and media pundits. Once we had positivism and Popper; now the claim that science is just another form of faith or politics.

Collins is clearly unhappy with this situation, and the thrust of his argument is that we cannot live by scepticism alone:

“The prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science and expertise is too awful to contemplate. What is needed is a third wave of science studies to counter the scepticism that threatens to swamp us all.”

Here we have Collins erecting a straw man. One can possibly forgive him for using such a well-worn rhetorical device, but the truth is that no-one bar the silliest of postmodernist scholars is calling for the total rejection of scientific values.

Just two paragraphs later, however, Collins is at it again, after calling for an “elective modernism” in which social scientists work out what is right about science, and natural scientists reflect on and recognise the limits of their practice and understanding:

“This third wave will be resisted. Post-modernists have become comfortable in their cocoon of cynicism. And some natural scientists have become too fond of describing their work as godlike. Others are ready to offer simple-minded criticisms of deeply held beliefs. But the the third wave is needed to put science back in its proper place.”

The root of the conflict between natural and social scientists lies in the ‘social constructivist’ analysis of natural science which came to the fore in the early 1990s, and showed that science is far from neutral and devoid of human influence. Scientists are human beings, just like everyone else, and politics and personality play their part in the practice of scientific research.

Much of the constructivist analysis rings true, and while this philosophical framework is critical of natural science, it is part of the modernist tradition. Contrary to the reaction of some offended natural scientists whose understanding of the philosophy of science never developed beyond Karl Popper, philosophers and sociologists of the constructivist school did not set out to undermine science. As Collins explains, their intention was to examine how scientific consensus is established. Scientists are not priests:

“[They are] skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short. Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver. If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail”

The second part of this statement is unfair, in that it describes those few scientists whose thinking was contaminated with the mysticism of Teilhard de Chardin and the like, and the über-positivists who never succeeded in fully shaking off their religious upbringing. It certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of researchers working today. Also, scientists cannot be blamed for an ignorant public reaction stoked in large part by those with hidden agendas.

Collins is on stronger ground when it comes to the logic of sceptical argument, from which:

“…one can deduce that no inference from observation can ever be certain, that one cannot be sure that the future will be like the past, and that nothing is exactly like anything else, making the process of experimental repetition more complicated than it seems. The work of sociologists was simply to show how this played out in the laboratory.”

What emerged from this was a battle between natural and social scientists unwinnable by either side using reasoned argument. It may be good fodder for newspaper opinion articles and scrappy blog posts, but no more than that.

As Collins says, the problem is that one can justify anything with scepticism, and it doesn’t help that the scientific method is (ab)used to support all sorts of crazy ideas, creationism included. I would like to see Collins expand on this, and possibly appeal to the work of Paul Feyerabend and others who have questioned the validity of universal methodological rules.

In his Nature article Collins focuses on expertise, and how one should weight expert opinion. He calls for expertise based on experience rather than training and certificates, and rejects the claim that an advanced education qualifies a person to speak with authority outside their narrow area of specialisation. This is interesting and commonsensical, as is the insistence that scientists think of themselves as “moral leaders” who teach fallibility, not absolute truth.

“Science’s findings are to be preferred over religion’s revealed truths, and are braver than the logic of scepticism, but they are not certain. They are a better grounding for society precisely, and only, because they are provisional. It is open debate among those with experience that is the ultimate value of the good society.”

Scientific truth is indeed provisional, and therein lies its greatest strength.