Slate Magazine is running an article about a Sociologist who posed as a physicist. Harry Collins (the sociologist) studies “expertise” in his day job, but has a strong interest in experiments for detecting gravitational waves. He and his colleagues collected a set of lay questions about gravitational wave detectors. They got an expert in the field to answer them, and Collins himself wrote his own set of answers. Both sets of answers were submitted to a group of nine experts in gravitational waves as a mini Turing test to figure out “which is the real physicist”. Seven of the nine picked Collins’ answers. The paper describing the experiment is here
Slate is trying to sell this experiment as the inverse of Alan Sokal’s famous hack on the post-modern journal, Social Text. But it isn’t. Not a single scientist is going to be surprised that a talented and interested amateur can understand their field well enough to answer qualitative questions about it. Science is not a secret society, and our methods and results are open to the public. Smart people without formal training can talk intelligently about science, they can get published in the journals if they write a good enough paper and they can often write better than the experts.
The only exception would be if a field requires specific kinds of mathematical training, but even then, amateurs can develop this expertise on their own and scientists will have few problems interacting with them. I’d argue that Collins has made himself nearly the equivalent of a practicing researcher in gravitational waves. He certainly learned enough to make himself something of a science writer. (Actually his answers are pleasingly light in technical jargon.) Good for him, but it still doesn’t say anything about exclusionary practices in science.
In fact, in thinking it through, I’m not sure I see the point. Perhaps the Slate article is spinning it a bit too much…