World's Fair

An article yesterday in Slate discusses Sociologist Harry Collins’s recent experiment with credibility and authority: “The Amateur’s Revenge: Posing as a physicist–and getting away with it.”

He did this:

In a recent experiment of his design, British sociologist Harry Collins asked a scientist who specializes in gravitational waves to answer seven questions about the physics of these waves. Collins, who has made an amateur study of this field for more than 30 years but has never actually practiced it, also answered the questions himself. Then he submitted both sets of answers to a panel of judges who are themselves gravitational-wave researchers. The judges couldn’t tell the impostor from one of their own.

“Collins’ feat startled the scientific community.”

But so what?

Wouldn’t it be a much better story to find Collins posing as a Runway Model or Vogue covergirl? That sounds a lot more difficult. Physics, shmysics.

A sociologist posing as a physicist (Harry Collins)

A physicist posing as a physicist (this one’s Jack Tuszynski — oh come on, cut me some slack, I googled it)

A runway model posing as a runway model.

So what’s so difficult? Let’s see Collins pose as the model instead. Then we have a story.


  1. #1 Ahcuah
    October 6, 2006

    It looks like crap to me. Just answering questions doesn’t really mean much of anything. If you can’t do the math, you really don’t understand it.

    The Slate article hints at this: “If he’d chosen questions that involved math, they would have done him in for sure; he knows next to none of the mathematics that gravitational-wave physicists use.” Well, yeah. That’s what makes them physicists. And then Collins notes, “You can be a great physicist and not know any mathematics.” Really? Name one.

  2. #2 Winawer
    October 6, 2006

    Actually, it would be equally difficult both ways. Collins may not be a physicist, but he has a good brain and 30 years of amateur study of the field; as Alan Sokal said, “He knows more about gravitational waves than I do!” He’s already halfway there. Thus, making him impersonate a runway model would be as difficult as having a runway model with an IQ of 75 impersonate a theoretical physicist. Collins is lacking the physical attributes, and the runway model (barring a significant outlier! :-) would be lacking the mental attributes.

    (Before anyone says “but you could teach the runway model, where you can’t make the sociologist look better”, I would have to say that anyone who believes that anybody can be made arbitrarily good at a given mental pursuit is persuing an argument of extreme environmental determination that just doesn’t hold water…)

  3. #3 Babe in the Universe
    October 9, 2006

    Someone who has studied gravity waves for 30 years may very well know more about them than a physicist. Collins experiment is less than “Catch Me if You Can.”

    For your real story, you need a Female Brain. Perhaps one can get a makeover!