Harry Collins – Changing Order. (SSK, core sets and all that)

This was my review of Harry Collins first overview of his sociology of science in 1985 – Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, to give it its full title. He’s written many more books since – The Golem (with Trevor Pinch) and Gravity’s Ghost are particularly recommended. 

I was pretty excited about Harry’s work when I first read it. Not just for the findings but also because someone was  spending time with working scientists talking to them about what they actually did, not just philosophising about the content of scientific papers. Now, when there’s a whole society for philosophy of science in practice, that’s less unusual, but he was one of the first. After the tedious “science wars” in the years since, it seems worth emphasising again that everything he writes says to me that he loves science, but sees it both as a rather fragile enterprise and as the best way of acquiring knowledge of the natural world we’ll find. I think so, too.

I still don’t fully understand how Collins’  “core set” validates knowledge, though. Must re-read the book.

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At school, our physics class daily refuted Newton, disproved Boyle and rewrote Ohm’s Law. Our teacher cheerfully invoked a small repertoire of factors to account for such results. His favourites, I recall, were humidity and friction, followed by irregularities in electricity supply. We pupils readily agreed as this device avoided the alternative – our incompetence.

But in a real scientific laboratory there are times when no one knows what counts as competence. And if historical accounts make it seem simple to see who was doing the work that really counted, that is a product of twenty-twenty hindsight.

For Harry Collins, ascription of competence is a sociological problem. His work over the last 15 years at Bath University has contributed to a growing collection of studies looking at the fine texture of scientific debate – studies which stress how knowledge is constructed or negotiated by groups of researchers. This provocative book is a review of his work, and an attempt to explain how scientists fit experimental results into pictures of the world.

Collins starts with the problem of induction: how can we be sure the Sun will rise tomorrow? The scientific equivalent of the rising Sun is the repeated experiment. But there is no unambiguous rule for deciding what counts as a replication of a contentious experiment, for there is literally no limit to the number of factors which might influence the outcome.

So, in the most interesting of Collins’ three main case studies, when physicists doubted Professor Jo Weber’s claims to have recorded high fluxes of the gravity waves predicted by relativity theory, they did not respond by building replicas of Weber’s detector. Most made their own designs and then picked apart one another’s results. It is a convincing example of what Collins calls “the experimenters’ regress”. You can only check an experiment by doing another experiment. If workers in the field disagree on how that experiment should be done, there is no way of deciding who is right by appealing to the data.

He does not argue that all science works like this. In the first case study in the book, of a British physicist building a new type of laser, the criteria for success were clear. Lasers of this type had worked before, so a competent replication must do the same. But Collins argues that there are crucial moments in scientific controversy when the experimenters’ regress is inescapable. He shows the same sort of thing happening in disagreements about the interpretation of experiments about the emotional life of plants in parapsychology.

The point is that when such debates are resolved the record is tidied up to leave no doubt that what is now defined as scientifically valid is really the case. Scientists who win, like victors in other spheres, rewrite history. But before one view gains ascendancy, anything goes.

Collins is not arguing that this is wrong, nor is his book an attack on science. But his radical scepticism about the grounds of belief does imply that building knowledge is a much more chancy business than more conventional accounts imply. His postscript explores the implications of this view for those who use science, from schoolteachers to inspectors at nuclear inquiries.

He stresses that disagreement about the meaning of facts among expert scientific observers does not imply dishonesty on one side or the other, as is often assumed. On his model of scientific change, it is simply a product of the social and cultural networks to which different researchers are linked.

Overall, the book is clearly written, fairly free of jargon, and gives enough of the detail of Collins’ work to let the reader weigh his argument. There is still plenty of scope for academic debate on how representative his case studies are. And the final stage of his argument – that the nature of core groups in scientific debate somehow guarantees that what emerges at the end is reputable knowledge – is a little hard to follow.

But his general approach seems a promising start for new explorations of our image of science, too often presented as infallibly authoritative. In Collins’ view, clinging to such an image will lead to loss of confidence in the whole scientific enterprise. This, he thinks, would be a disaster because: “for all its fallibility, science is the best institution for generating knowledge about the natural world we have”. I think my old physics teacher would agree. (1985)

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