Thursday, January 01, 2015

Book Review: "Are We All Scientific Experts Now?"

Highly recommended.  Brief book with a very high level argument relying a lot on his experience but I think it has some deep insights into how science is done, our shifting conception of how it is done, and the way it is communicated. 

Three big ideas are covered in this book.  First, a three wave conception of how science has been conceived since the mid-20th century:

(1) idealistic deference to science focusing selectively on fairy tale versions of its history and overly focusing on the heroic successes,

(2) cynical deconstruction of science as nothing special and decloaking of experts by adopting a symmetry of explanations regarding what is true and what is false, making science just another storytelling activity and focusing selectively on failures and controversies and social and political influences on science, and

(3) a more realistic wave that accepts the messy processes of doing scientific work and the requirements for doing it well along with the ethos that makes sincere inquiry into nature legitimately special. This is where we need to be now in his view, and I agree strongly with him.
The second wave Collins associates with the problem of "default expertise," the idea that since it is nothing special we can all directly understand scientific ideas and primary sources, learn from them, and make competent and useful evaluations of them, without any specialist knowledge or skills.  He ultimately finds the concept untenable and a notion drawn from significantly overreaching the real insights that were drawn from the second wave that revolted against the privileged scientific priesthood.

Second big idea, a model of different kinds of expertise and its relationship to tacit knowledge, recognizing especially the difference between things we pick up ourselves and things we pick up by interacting deeply and systematically with other people.

Third big idea, distance lends enchantment.  The farther we get from being researchers directly discussing their work with each other in a field day to day, the more the conversation changes and becomes more idealized regarding how it might be applied and the farther we get from actually understanding it.

My summary from the review:

"We are all ubiquitous experts but we are not all scientific experts in the sense that not only are we not all domain specialists in the fields we want to think about but we don't even widely share the ethos of inquiry that is common to scientists. Even specialist scientists vary in how highly they value aspects of that ethos.

The conclusion is that it is vital to both protect the scientific ethos and have a more realistic understanding of the kinds of expertise and the messy processes that make it work and cloud our communications about it when we go to make decisions from scientific work.

This kind of nuanced, important thinking about science and expertise is a wonderful gift from Collins that I truly hope we don't squander."

Full review on Amazon: