November 1, 2007
Following some heretical comments by me regarding the nature of scientific activity, I was referred by commenter “dsquared” to a book called “The Golem” by two sociologists, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. This fairly reasonable book makes the point that, despite pretenses by scientists and non-scientists, science is not a formal system in which crisp models generate crisp predictions which can then be neatly confirmed or refuted by experiments with unambiguous results. This is a good point, but the book somehow still manages to miss, or at least to obscure, the main issue – as dsquared’s summary of the “the basic conclusions of the literature” shows.
By discussing mainly “big science” (relativity, spontaneous generation, gravity waves, solar neutrinos and cold fusion) and paradigm threatening ideas (chemical transfer of memory and cold fusion), the book seems to imply what dsquared thinks it does, namely, that normal scientific activity breaks down in certain, rare, problematic cases. In fact, I believe the authors make a better point, namely, one close to the one I am making (repeatedly) – that science, including normal, everyday science, is a political rather than a rational activity – but their presentation obscures this point, inadvertently or deliberately.
It is therefore the chapter about the small, run-of-the-mill science, the sex life of the whiptail lizard, that is the best one in the book. Even here, the profile of the events is much higher than usual, as the appearance of a Time magazine article about the matter shows. However, despite some attempt on the side of Collins and Pinch to explain the importance of the zoological issue, to the reader (to me, at least) the whole point seems so trivial that it is quite clear that the science of the matter (in its pure, mythical, objective sense) is of marginal impact on the events described, while personal politics is at the forefront.
It seems, as I wrote above, that Collins and Pinch do in fact know that science in general, rather than only revolutionary or controversial science, is political. For example, they do occasionally (but only occasionally) mention the issue of the careers of the scientists involved (p. 133-134, for example, discuss physicist John Bahcall’s maneuvering on the missing neutrinos issue in the light of potential impact on his career). Why, then, do they soft-sell or obscure this point enough so that dsquared can misunderstand it?
The likely answer is, again, political. Even the relatively benign reading of the ideas in the book, leading to the understanding of scientific politics as put forward by dsquared, is surely unpleasant to many (and in particular to many established, powerful scientists) and is thus dangerous to the authors. Going the whole way would be much more dangerous. Not wishing to take such a large risk, but not wanting to deny their own understanding, Collins and Pinch compromise – they write their findings in such a way that it can be interpreted by the reader according to his tastes. I have mine.