In a column last week, I argued that journalists and other non-scientists have the right and even in some cases the responsibility to question the authority of scientific experts; after all, "even the most accomplished scientists at the most prestigious institutions often make claims that turn out to be erroneous or exaggerated."
My post criticized a column in which journalist Chris Mooney argued that non-scientists should submit to the authority of scientific experts. In support of his position, Mooney cited a recent defense of scientific expertise by British sociologist Harry Collins.
While pondering the heated reactions to my post, I was also preparing for a visit to my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, of another U.K.-based sociologist, Steve Fuller of the University of Warwick. Fuller is going to talk about transhumanism, which he has explored in recent books.
Fuller has also written a lot about science and technology studies, or STS. Flipping through his 2006 book The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies, I came upon a passage--adapted from a 1998 essay—that defends the critical stance that STS scholars often take toward science. The passage reads like a comment on my recent column:
"There appears to be nothing uniquely 'rational,' objective,' or 'truth-oriented' about the activities that our society calls 'scientific.' Make no mistake: it is not that scientists are less rational than the rest of humanity; rather, they are not more rational. STS researchers generally credit ordinary people with a good deal of intelligence.
"The power of science seems to rest on three pillars. One is science's distinctive social organization, which enables concentrated periods of both teamwork and criticism, nowadays done on a global scale with considerable material resources. Another is concerted political effort to apply the results of scientific research to all aspects of society. Finally is the control that scientists continue to exert over how their history is told. Past diversions and failures remain largely hidden, resulting in an airbrushed picture of 'progress' otherwise absent from human affairs.
"Of course, these are controversial claims that, in a sense, 'demystify' science. But they are meant to encourage scientists to be more modest in their pronouncements so that the public is not oversold on what science can do. The failure of science to live up to its own manufactured expectations has probably done more harm to science's social standing in recent years than anything STS has ever done."
Assuming Fuller still adheres to this stance, he goes a bit further in questioning scientists' rationality than I do. Otherwise, I agree with his perspective, especially his call for scientists "to be more modest in their pronouncements." I look forward to talking to Fuller more about these matters on Wednesday. Feel free to join us at his talk, which is free and open to the public.