If you take scientists at their word, human-induced climate change is well underway, evolution accounts for the diversity of life on Earth and vaccines do not cause autism. But the collective expertise of thousands of researchers barely registers with global warming skeptics, creationist movie producers and distrustful parents. Why is scientific authority under fire from so many corners? Sociologist Harry Collins thinks part of the answer lies in a misunderstanding of expertise itself. Like Jane Goodall living among the chimps, Collins, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, has spent 30 years observing physicists who study gravitational wave detection—the search for faint ripples in the fabric of spacetime. He's learned the hard way about the work that goes into acquiring specialized scientific knowledge. In a recent book, Rethinking Expertise, he says that what bridges the gap—and what keeps science working—is something called "interactional expertise". Collins spoke recently with ScientificAmerican.com about his view of expertise; what follows is an edited transcript of that interview.
How did we get to the point where scientific authority is so easily challenged?
The high point of the authority of science was perhaps the 1950s. In those days one would see on the popular television programs a scientist wearing a white coat with license to speak authoritatively on almost any subject to do with science—and sometimes on subjects outside of science. But things go wrong in the progress of science and technology. If you see the space shuttle crashing, you can see that these guys in the white coats don't always get it right.
When you discover the jagged edges of science, you start to think, wait a minute—maybe scientists' views aren't quite as immaculate as we thought they were. Maybe ordinary people's views can weigh a little more. And I think there's some truth to this, but not as much as some of my colleagues think. Having studied esoteric sciences from the outside, I know that ordinary people have no chance of grasping the details of them.
What's wrong with ordinary people weighing in on scientific subjects?
It is easy to imagine all sorts of horror stories if we abandon the idea that there are some people who know what they are talking about and some who don't. Most scientific disputes that concern the public are at the cutting edge—the place where things are not completely certain. Examples are the safety of vaccines, the true importance of global warming, the effects of farming genetically modified food crops, and so forth.
Even now, in the U.K., the relatively dangerous disease of measles is becoming endemic as a result of a widespread consumer revolt against the MMR vaccine about 10 years ago. Parents believe that even though doctors assure them that vaccines are safe, those doctors may be wrong. Therefore, the parents think they are entitled to throw their own judgment into the mix. Quite a few social scientists are pushing this trend hard.