of books by Harry Collins, Trevor Pinch

HARRY COLLINS is Professor of sociology and director of the Science Studies Center at the University of Bath. TREVOR PINCH is Associate Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University.

The Golem: What everyone should know about science
by Harry Collins, Trevor Pinch
Cambridge University Press, 1998

THE GOLEM or what every student of science should know about the sociology of science!!!

Sociology of science has found its favorite object  --  deconstructing hard science. To challenge the Gods and tear down monuments is a recurring element in the history of Homo sapiens. What everyone should know about science is not scientific knowledge, but the controversial nature of the scientific method, i.e., how science is practiced. Science is done by man and man is fallible, ambitious, corrupt. Who, if not scientists themselves, should know this better? But who, if not scientists, could talk about this in public? The myth goes that science dismantled God and put itself in his place. Now sociology of science is demanding the demise of the new God. Sociologists are asking for what is fair  --  for scientists to admit that science is not the Holy Grail of objectivity. Science is not what it is supposed to be and everyone should talk about this.

Here are four noteworthy comments about the book:

  • The preface explains the purpose of the book, namely that only controversial science needs to be known to the lay person, even though ‘... most science is uncontroversial’. Collins&Pinch imply here that they can make a distinction between two types of science, and that the non-scientist should pay attention to only one of them. Somehow Collins&Pinch expect that the same person can figure out what science really is, even though it has never been explained in this book. The book also never mentions or would indicate that uncontroversial science has been controversial at some point, although this controversy was interesting only to the scientists involved. The lay person (and even scientists in other fields) would have missed the esoteric details of the disputes, and rightly so. But there are disputes in everything scientific and only the more acclaimed and groundbreaking novelties are covered in 'the Golem' and labeled controversial. The book makes no mention, then, that there can be no distinction between controversial and uncontroversial science, there is only controversy that will be settled by one account or another. The basic mechanism of settling a controversy is the honest merging of experimental and theoretical account of reality. The book implies that the way controversies are settled is the real depiction of science and that it is a cultural rather than an objective process.
  • Controversy is what Collins&Pinch call ‘..how science really works.’ This is true and it is indeed mind boggling to see that in this age of technology and science, the vast majority of people does not understand how science is done. This is because nobody has ever told them so, and the school curricula in science are rather a listing of facts. It is this listing of facts which is really meant to be science that instills an incomplete understanding of how these facts are gathered. Where does the knowledge come from? Some familiar way of looking at the scientific method may come from everyday gathering of information: looking at pictures (‘a picture says more than thousand words’), listening to narratives of other people about things we have not experienced ourselves, things we have not seen with our own eyes and yet, by account of a person we trust, we think that we have experienced a new truth and increased our knowledge by accepting authority of the narrator. Science is done no other way. There is learning of facts (textbook, technical knowledge), there is also learning of method, that is, the way of understanding how observations are secured, based on perceived ideas (theories, models, practical knowledge), of knowing what to look for in order to discriminate the worthy from the unworthy. This is human judgment, an act of finding the truth. By means of truth seeking, i.e., judging, we try to understand how reality, the world outside us, compares to actuality. The latter is our perception of the world. Truth then would amount to the identity of reality and actuality.
  • What is the role of experimentation in science? As Collins&Pinch write ‘Experiments alone do not seem capable of settling [an] issue’ (Golem, 72). I agree. When I attended my first high school chemistry class, our teacher proudly told us that ‘only the experiment is conclusive’, meaning something like ‘only the experiment can show conclusive evidence to settle a dispute’. But of course, this plainly overstates the role of the experiment within the framework of any scientific research. Every scientist has a hypothesis he or she would like to prove. It is within the framework of this hypothesis, or expectation, that the experiment is conclusive, if, and this is a big if, an experiment has been done properly. Here again we have a factor that appears subject to the experimenters expertise and judgment, to his honesty and manipulative skills, and last but not least, his narrative skills in communicating his findings to others. A lot of things, obviously, must be ‘right’. A single experiment can never satisfy this demand, and therefore we speak of a ‘body of evidence’, meaning the cumulative consistency of many individual experiments that are consistent with a single hypothesis or theory.
  • In chapter 4 ‘ The germs of dissent’ Collins&Pinch make a very true and most important statement: ‘Our modern understanding of biochemistry, biology and the theory of evolution is founded on the idea that, aside from the peculiar conditions of pre-history, life can only arise from life’ (Golem, 79; italics added). Stated as such, this is a scientific fact which today no serious scientist is willing to challenge (except for the very prestigious experiment that would show how the first living (= prebiotic) cell emerged from inorganic matter). give a wonderful account of the controversy of how Louis Pasteur ‘won’ the dispute that life does not emerge out of 'slime' (a mini-creation). Once microorganisms in a solution are killed, life will no longer emerge from this solution.  Pasteur ultimately did not 'win' by superior experimentation [from today's perspective], but with the help of influential friends within the French Academy of Science. Now this sounds like a nice story of politics but not science, if not for the fact that Pasteur was right. Collins&Pinch barely mention why, today, we know he was right (I would love to know how many readers could identify the real cause of Pasteur's own failing experiments solely base on their account), and leave the unsuspected reader with the impression that it was pure luck. Collins&Pinch are right in saying that Pasteur suppressed some of his own contradictory results to save his hypothesis. This seems to be a slap in the face of the true believer, but it summarizes very nicely how progress is achieved in science; not by performing the superior experiment alone, but by having the right conviction. It is pure stubbornness that lets many scientist successfully pursue their goals. Scientists often spend many, many years producing results that everybody else would take as proof of following the wrong path. But they keep going until they can prove that everybody else has too little faith, too little strength, and too little conviction to believe in a cause. Yes, it has to be said; it is this believe in a cause that is the engine of science. This belief is a mixture of intuition and the logic of scientific inquiry. Only combined with academic codes of honor, not to cheat oneself or others, can such conviction be turned into hard experimental evidence. Remember, it is not a single experiment that is decisive, but a growing body of evidence that shapes any theory in science (see also Ludwik Fleck's Genesis and development of a scientific fact). What Collins&Pinch attack is the myth building of exactly this; that there exists this one great experiment that proved this or that. This myth of the 'decisive experiment' is admittedly a historical lie, a misdemeanor of the profession, a ritual to provide certainty in a world of uncertainty. Collins and Pinch have to be applauded to unmask this lie.

June 13, 1999 (update August 14, 1999) / © 1999 Lukas K. Buehler go back to Book Review Home