Scientific Expert or Not. Does it matter?

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…

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7 Responses to Scientific Expert or Not. Does it matter?

  1. People the spearhead of scientific discovery are practically amateurs since the old fashioned training they have received earlier could only inadequately prepare them. Once the field gets into the tezt books, it is rather easy to follow up, hence absolutely agree with your analysis.

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  2. dsquared says:

    I think the interesting point is that Harry Collins doesn’t understand the mathematics and has never really tried to. So if (and I agree you’re right here), he’s understood gravity waves at an equivalent level to that of a researcher in the field, then it isn’t necessary to understand the math in order to udnerstand gravity waves. Which seems like quite a controversial and interesting thing to have proved.

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  3. dsquared has it nearly right.

    First it is by no means clear that a non-physicist can learn enough to talk physics however long they stick at it. Readers of the original paper will realise that fully trained research scientists not in the GW field could not manage it.

    Second, the point about mathematics that he makes is exactly right. In a short while I will put another article on the expertise website that specifically discusses this aspect; it may turn out to be the most important point of all.


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  4. Pingback: Francis Sedgemore » Blog Archive » What defines a ’scientific expert’?

  5. Pingback: Division of labour « On boundaries

  6. Uncle Al says:

    One does not need a license to think. Scholarship is trivial pursuit – a cubic mile of Scientific Socialism inevitability, Bible, and psychology commentaries. Tommy Aquinas was particularly egregious even if self-consistent.

    Amateurs and professionals are distinguished by math skills not by content. Theory can predict near anything to any desired accuracy. Economics has been crying “Heteroskedasticity!” for more than a century.

    Any theory with an empirically falsified prediction is wrong. String theory claims inerrance for lacking testable predictions. A suckling babe who burps counterdemonstration of a founding postulate brings down the contingent whole house of cards. Postulates cannot be defended or they would not be postulated.

    Amateur or professional is determined by asking to see the maths. An amateur wishing to best professionals performs an experiment: It has a reproducible heterodox outcome and said outcome does not contradict prior observation.

    All of physics – gravitation, quantum field theory, even mechanics – can be toppled. Demonstrate space is not isotropic (identical in every direction) then engage Noether’s theorem to end conservation of angular momentum. That is a crazy idea! We hope to have results by January 2007,

    Some 30 professionals have quietly contributed. One last volunteer is setting up the run. Is everything we know to be true empirically wrong? Theory will accommodate as necessary. “8^>)

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  7. drew3000 says:

    What makes a scientist? I sort of like the expertise industry is being challenged some, but I think Slate is taking it in the wrong way. Science is a method not a secret code. Anyone willing to put in the time to understand it and put it into practice can essentially be a scientist. Charles Darwin did a lot of his studies in the back yard.

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