Reading Diary: Are We All Scientific Experts Now by Harry Collins and To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

Science! What's it good for? Working towards better knowledge about the natural world!

Under review today are two books that approach what science is and what it's good for from very different angles. Steven Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics and in his book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science he uses the example of the development of physics and astronomy in modern times to show how the scientific method has been developed and evolved over time. Harry Collins is a sociologist who was instrumental in developing the fields of science studies and the sociology of science. In his book Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, Collins takes what the scientific method has given us and explores how society should take advantage of the resulting knowledge and expertise.

In a sense, we have two sides of the coin here, a way to approach the contingent, temporary, evolving "truths" of science. How did we come to know what those truths are and how should the citizens of modern society view those truths. Both Weinberg's and Collins' approaches are valuable and interesting, however one of them is more successful in terms of what we actually have before us as finished books.

The Harry Collins book is the more successful of the two and is actually one of the best examples of "practical philosophy of science for regular people" I have encountered. Collins' career project is understanding expertise, particularly scientific expertise, and this book is a kind of career capstone for him. He looks at different kinds of expertise in the book. In particular he evaluates scientific expertise how those regular people should evaluate the experts and make use of the expertise.

He comes to the conclusion that scientific expertise that is based on evidence and established community practices within science should generally be trusted by the general public. The question in the title of his book, "Are we all scientific experts now?" That he basically answers with a resounding No. While skepticism is important to science and citizens should be skeptical, when we look at so many of the major issues of the day where there is widespread disagreement between citizen skeptics and the consensus of the scientific community -- vaccines and climate change being the two biggest examples -- it's not contest. Evidence and expertise are fundamentally important.

Collins' book is an incredibly important contribution to the discussion on the place of science in society and the formulation of public policy based on science. I can't imagine a library at any level that wouldn't benefit from this book. It is a quick read and very accessible and is suitable for even high school or middle school libraries.

The Weinberg book by contrast isn't as successful as I would have hoped. The goal of the book is to demonstrate the development of the scientific method through the historical development of the major scientific ideas in astronomy and physics. This is actually a very interesting goal. The scientific method is often presented as a kind of fait accompli is explanations of how it works, as if scientists always used it and always understood its power.

Of course, that's no where near the case. And Weinberg does a pretty good job of using the history of scientific ideas to tease out the history of the scientific method. But a potential pitfall is all too obvious here -- finding the right balance between explaining the content and details of those scientific theories and ideas versus pulling together the progression of the philosophical ideas embedded in the discovery of those ideas. Too much either way and the risk is diluting the complementary goal. Too much philosophy and too little science will have no grounding. Too much science and too little philosophy will produce a book too similar to shelves and shelves of other history of science books.

Unfortunately Weinberg puts too much emphasis on the science.

This is a book that could easily have been fifty pages shorter and still made the same points. I often found my attention wandering wadding through the "facts" and looking forward to the context. Weinberg often got bogged down in the "What" rather than the "why" or "how." Overall a pretty good book, I would recommend it for academic libraries that have popular science collections. Large public library systems would probably also find an audience for this book.

Collins, Harry. Are We All Scientific Experts Now? Cambridge: Polity, 2014. 140pp. ISBN-13: 978-0745682044

Weinberg, Steven. To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. New York: Harper, 2015. 432pp. ISBN-13: 978-0062346650

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The publisher's description of Collins' book, which you link to, has some jabber about "the superior moral qualities of science." Such arrogant nonsense supplies a big hint about the cause of public suspicion of science. Science-as-process is, simply, the most efficient set of tools we have for learning about certain aspects of our world. Like any box of tools, it has no morality except that supplied by the user - you can choose to research cancer cures or design bioweapons - and it is capable of returning only factual information, not value judgements. Nonetheless, many spokesmen for Science - from domineering doctors to the odious Sam Harris - keep pretending that their superior factual knowledge enables them to tell the public not only what IS, but what SHOULD be. The public is told not only that they have no place in the generation of knowledge, but that their values and preferences are irrelevant. Hence backlash.

I apologize if I've given the impression that the Collins book is all about the "superior moral qualities of science" which is an unfortunate way for the publisher to describe the book. I think that what Collins is trying to get at is that science has better explanatory power than other, less evidence-based, ways of approaching things.