Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dupre and Griffiths reply to Collins

Nature have published my and John Dupre's reply to Harry Collins foolishness about the future of science studies. It's in Nature, April 9th 2009, 458 (7239) pp679-796. Here's the content:

Sir, Far from being dominated by scepticism about science, as Harry Collins claims in his Essay 'We cannot live by scepticism alone' (Nature 458, 30–31; 2009), mainstream philosophy of science opposes the relativism that Collins decries. We are both philosophers of biology, a field that analyses key biological concepts such as species and genes, dissects theoretical debates in biology and examines emerging fields such as systems biology. This work often involves criticism of scientific positions. But if any of it is part of Collins's sceptical 'second wave' of science studies, Richard Dawkins is a bishop.

Collins dismisses philosophy of science as a 'first wave of science studies' largely coinciding with post-war confidence in science and superseded by the work of sociologists of knowledge like himself. In fact, mainstream philosophy of science — which was being developed before the Second World War by Rudolph Carnap, Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach and others — remains a thriving discipline in most universities. It teaches students that science is neither the 'voice of a God' nor merely the view of one social group, just as Collins advocates.

The only contemporary 'philosopher' Collins mentions (though not by name) is Steve Fuller, whose statement to a US court that intelligent design is science Collins uses as evidence that post-modern scepticism pervades science studies. However, Fuller is a professor of sociology. All the philosophers of science who, like Fuller, were witnesses or advisers in the Dover Area School District case (see Nature 439, 6–7; 2006) appeared for the other side, supporting evolution.

Working in an interdisciplinary research centre alongside historians and sociologists of biology and medicine, we can assure Collins that post-modern science sceptics are thin on the ground. The 'science wars' of the 1990s were whipped up by a selective focus on the work of a very few scholars, many of whom did not work in the philosophy, history or sociology of science. Let us hope that Collins's remarks do not reignite this unproductive controversy


  1. I must confess that I don't see why you guys are so upset with Collins. Does it simply boil down to the broad-brush way that he characterises 'philosophers of science'? I would have thought that you guys practice exactly what he preaches with regard to expertise. Just as he has dropped most of his sociological baggage to acquire interactive expertise with scientists, you guys have dropped most of your philosophical baggage that would get in the way of collaborating with scientists (and defending them publicly). You and Collins are really on the same side.

    The question you need to ask is exactly what you think you are defending by defending 'philosophy of science'. All I get from your letter is a potted sociological account (which may or may not be empirically correct) about what most philosophers of science do. So does that settle the matter? If so, then you really are on Collins' side.

    Also, as you both know I am trained as a philosopher of science, and I am no more ‘sceptical’ of science than you are. (And in highlighting ‘sceptical’, I am appealing to what remains of your understanding of professional philosophy.)

  2. s_w_fuller said...
    "I must confess that I don't see why you guys are so upset with Collins'"

    That must be because he represents your work as current orthodoxy (albeit a threat to society), whereas he represents our kind of work as having been intellectually demolished and dismissed forty years ago. Moreover, he presents this nonsense in a massively influential forum.

    I don't know what this is about 'defending philosophy of science'. What we were trying to do was to set the record straight for scientists who might be misled by Collins' picture of what goes on in contemporary HPSSS.

  3. It's interesting that even here you continue to distance yourself from my (alleged) substantive position but not Collins' substantive position. You just object to his characterisation of you. So am I correct that you wouldn't have been motivated to write the letter, had Collins not made it seem as though you and he were farther apart than you really are?

  4. No. I don't think you get why I OBJECTED to Collins' article, as well as disagreeing with it. Collin's article is a classic example of retelling history so as to write out of it all the people you don't want to discuss. I also object, as the letter makes clear, to Collins reinforcing the prejudice amongst his target audience that I any my colleagues are all 'anti-science'. Collins intervention will practically and directly make my job of interacting with scientist harder! My post on this blog when the article appeared makes this clear, I think.

    As for Collins 'substantive position', at least as represented in this article, I certainly don't think that the epistemic status of scientific knowledge is adequately dealt with by assimilating it to a trade skill. See Marcel Weber's 2005 critique of the idea that the epistemology of science can be reduced to the analysis of the pragmatic value of a set of experimental practices to those that practice it.

  5. Thanks for that clarification. I guess I was a bit confused given that your own response to Collins managed to ‘retell the history’ so as to mischaracterize my own position, in a sense that capitalized on Collins’ own mischaracterization. (Since Collins could paint me as ‘anti-science’, so could you, I guess!)

    And maybe your position is different from Collins’, but that’s not so obvious given your downscaled view of philosophy. My guess is that he never had guys like you in mind because he sees you as virtual sociologists, in which case he has no substantive quarrel with you. My point here is simply is that if you think there is something distinctly ‘philosophical’ (and not simply amateur sociology) that you wish to defend, then maybe you should advertise it better – and worry more about distinguishing yourself from Collins than from me.