Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Harry Collins on Science and the Humanities

There is an extraordinary article by the sociologist of science Harry Collins in Nature last week.

Collins argues that social scientists and humanists have undermined public confidence in science to such an extent that we now have some serious social and political problems as a result of this. He presents himself as the sensible middle way between science worship and science scepticism. Frankly, this is a bit like Martin Luther offering to 'mediate' in the thirty years war.

The elephant in the room here is traditional, mainstream history and philosophy of science, so Collins has to pretend that for the past thirty years the only people in humanities and social science writing about science have been people like himself. He does this by describing traditional HPS as a ‘first wave of science studies’ which was superceded by people like him in the 1970s. This 'earlier' approach was a product of post-Second World War confidence in science, and culminated with Karl Popper (he suggests it was his work that really sank Popper!)

The villains of Collins' article are 'postmodernists' whose relativism has sapped public confidence in science. He claims that he was simply misinterpreted by these people to support their case.

In a breathtakingly self-serving twist Collins gives as an example of 'postmodernism' "a philosopher acting as an expert witness in a court case in the United States [who] claimed that the scientific method, being so ill-defined, could support creationism". The person in question is, of course, Steve Fuller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, who has since written a book defending his position at the trial. Fuller has degrees in History and Sociology and in History and Philosophy of Science. For twenty-one of the past twenty-four years he has held appointments in Sociology or Science and Technology Studies. Philosophers of science were actively involved in the trial as witnesses and advisors, but all on the other side.

You have to give it to Collins for chutzpah, but it would be a travesty if he were to succeed in getting this fantasy accepted by scientists.


  1. Nice job on calling Collins for shifting Fuller to the other team!

  2. Did Fuller's evidence help or hurt the case?

  3. From the judges comments, which you can find at the National Centre for Science Education website, it seems to me that they harmed the actual case. In the longer run, there is now a fully articulated, book-length defence of the position that ID should be regarded as science by someone who is a well-known science-studies scholar, which ID advocates can point to in support of their case.