Monday, 26 May 2014

A sociologist, a scientist, and a slow leak

For everyone waiting since Friday to hear Harry Collins's answer to my question on how to correctly identify scientific experts, and thus save human society from otherwise inevitable descent into chaos, you'll have to wait a bit longer, while I tell you about our journey to the Hay Festival. We had other issues to resolve first.

We started from Cardiff in the middle of Friday afternoon, in a rental car with a slow leak in one tire. The tire was already slightly flat when we left. We would have pumped it up at the first petrol station, if I hadn't distracted Harry with my statement of disbelief that there could ever have existed serious bona fide intellectuals who really believed that science is merely a social construct.

"There certainly were," he said.

I was shocked.

He added, "I was one of them."

I was horrified.

He added more: "I still am."

I was outraged. I was also terrified. This man was driving the car, and all of the doors were locked.

He added yet more: "And you won't be able to convince me otherwise."

All right, so this was going to be my chance to get out alive. Could I argue him down from his philosophical ledge? A ledge he'd been leering over for decades?

By the time we passed Pontypridd, I could see I was doomed. His argument was irrefutable. Science is done by human beings, and the human brain is about as rational as an electrified cabbage. And the kicker: if it was any other way, if the human brain was really an especially even-tempered computer, then science would be impossible, because computers have no creativity and no imagination.

Then he remembered the tire, and we pulled over at the next gas station. Maybe I should make a run for it? He must have been reading my irrational mind. He gave me a look that said, "Go ahead. We're deep in the Valleys now. You won't get far alive." I knew he was right. With his real voice he offered me what I took to be an offer of financial payment in return for survival: "The air pump needs 50p. Do you have any change?"

He pumped up the tire, and we continued. I tried to press on with my argument. As we sped over the winding road through the Brecon Beacons, the way ahead obscured by dark meteorological constructs, I thought I found a technicality.

In my desperation I was pleading, "Saying that science is a mere social artifact implies that it is useless."

He pounced on the word "merely". "I never said science was useless! Those people from the Humanities might have, but not me. Why else do you think I'm so interested now in scientific expertise?"

Aha, perhaps this was the way to win? "But this is why so many people mistrust science," I said. I thought I had him. "You might not have said that, but the general public misunderstood it that way."

Was it time now for an admission of guilt and a full confession?

No. He just laughed. "But the general public misunderstand everything."

What an arrogant, snobbish, elitist thing to say! It went against everything I held dear about human equality, about intellectual freedom, and about the democratic principle. But I couldn't argue, because it was true.

"You're right," I said, defeated. "I should know: I am phenomenally smart, and I get confused all the time."

"You certainly made a mess of this argument."

I thought that was very generous of him.

By now we had arrived at Hay. Our tire might still have a leak, but my punctured ego was quickly patched and re-inflated to astronomical proportions. Now I was an official Hay Festival Artist! We drove right past the sodden masses of literary hangers on and scarf-wearing pseudo-intellectuals trudging to the festival site from the overflowing visitor car parks, and stopped right next to the Main Tent in the Artist's Car Park. It had been raining all day, and we got to squelch grandly through the Artist's Mud. Then we wiped our feet on the Artist's Doormat before being lead into the Artist's Green Room and offered drinks. There was no sign of anyone famous, though, so we moved on to the Artist's Restaurant. There was no-one famous there, either, but we enjoyed a long meal of Artist's Coc au Vin and several glasses of Artist's Red Wine, punctuated only by visits to the Artist's Portable Toilets. The bill that night included Brian May before us, and Billy Bragg afterwards. I didn't see either of them. Steve Winwood was continually in the Artist's Toilets, though. Not actually Steve Winwood, of course; that would be creepy. Just a playlist on a loop, to relax the bladder.

Then we were on.

I put to Harry my Big Question: before we listen to the scientific experts, we have to figure out who they are. How do we do that?

I wasn't expecting a revelation, and I was duly satisfied in my disappointment. The main thrust of his nuanced answer was, "It's tough."

Observing that I was not sufficiently dissatisfied, he added that getting to the bottom of a scientific controversy requires an understanding of sociology. Now he was really trying to wind me up! If all that can save science is sociology, surely the situation is even worse than I feared!

He backed up his view with a story. He asked how we can be sure that the American moon landing was not a hoax. He explained that scientists will point out many authentic scientific details that suggest the event was real: the US flag did not hang down in the low gravity, for example, and the radio signal was cut off when the capsule went behind the moon. But he pointed out that a good fake would include each of those. The most convincing evidence in his view is that the Russians believed it was real -- they had the technology to observe whether a spacecraft really did land on the moon, and the most cause to denounce the event if they saw nothing.

This was a cute argument, but we all know that it wouldn't convince a crackpot. Now, I don't want to get mixed up with the moon-landing-hoax loonies; the anti-global-warming loonies were bad enough. But I think I can imagine how easily they could argue out of that one. Couldn't the Russians and the Americans have been in cahoots, devilishly concocting an elaborate excuse to play a little space sport designed to further each superpower's idiosyncratic methods of oppressing its own people? Isn't that the obvious explanation for any respectable conspiracy theorist?

The natural response to any of this is that common sense tells you that all of these explanations are nonsense, and of course the damn thing really happened. I mean, what kind of nutty world do you think we live in?

Uh-oh. Now we see the problem. Common sense will deceive you, and remember, people misunderstand everything.

So it looks like we're back to the start. "It's tough."

Never mind. There was cake, coffee, and more wine back in the Green Room, and the tire held up all the way home. 


  1. Nice post! However the moon landing was proved to be a hoax! Kennedy admitted it himself!

    1. Thanks. I assume you are referring to the seance interview on 1975?

  2. Does your title imply that you don't view sociologists as scientists? I know some sociologists who would beg to disagree.

    1. All perceived implications are merely the result of the cultural reference frame of the individual reader. And therefore intentional.

  3. You may want to check out this Mother Jones article by Chris Mooney.

  4. Thanks! I just put a shameless plug in the comments. (I read the article, too...)

  5. Sociologists are wanna be scientists.

    1. Deep down, doesn't everyone wanna be a scientist? Or am I thinking of rock stars?


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