Science & Non-Experts

A physics major taking my class pointed me towards an article in Slate on sociologist Harry Collins’ recent experiment to test his knowledge of physics:

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 argues that he is therefore as qualified as anyone to discuss this field, even though he can’t conduct experiments in it.

Collins’ feat startled the scientific community. The journal Nature predicted that the experiment would have a broad impact, writing that Collins could help settle the “science wars of the 1990s,” “when sociologists launched what scientists saw as attacks on the very nature of science, and scientists responded in kind,” accusing the sociologists of misunderstanding science. More generally, it could affect “the argument about whether an outsider, such as an anthropologist, can properly understand another group, such as a remote rural community.” With this comment, Nature seemed to be saying that if a sociologist can understand physics, then anyone can understand anything.

They go on to compare this to what physicist Alan Sokal did to Social Texts a decade ago:

[Sokal] is famous for an experiment a decade ago that seemed to demonstrate the futility of laymen discussing science. In 1996, he tricked the top humanities journal Social Text into publishing as genuine scholarship a totally nonsensical paper that celebrated fashionable literary theory and then applied it to all manner of scientific questions. (“As Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory.”) Sokal showed that, with a little flattery, laymen could be induced to swallow the most ridiculous of scientific canards—so why should we value their opinions on science as highly as scientists’?

Apparently, Collins argues in a paper that his experiment shows that it’s possible to be an expert in physics without being an expert in mathematics. He doesn’t say this to imply math is not a key part of physics (which would be absurd), only that it’s possible to have a division of labor in physics where some specialize in mathematics and others in things like experiments. I’ve got no clue as to that specific point and I haven’t actually read his paper or anything, but aside from just thinking this is a highly entertaining story, I’m posting these because of the way annoying it gets linked to the “science wars.” A few points:

* The same physics student in my class pointed me towards a hilarious Computer Science Paper Generator that tries to pull an automated Sokal on computer science. If someone hasn’t done this already, someone seriously needs to make one of these for another CS: Cultural Studies. Or even sociology. It could be done.