Harry Collins, Expertise, and Elective Modernism

I have attended a talk at Tel Aviv University by sociologist Harry Collins, one of the leading scholars in Science and Technology Studies today. In the talk, Collins presented the current state of his and Robert Evans‘ theory of expertise and his new notion of elective modernism. I want to share with you some thoughts about them, particularly about why, despite their promise and appeal, they only partly work.…

Can We Trust Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is increasingly becoming the first and often only source to which many people refer for getting information on many subjects. It has several features that distinguish it from traditional sources of knowledge: It is democratic, collaborative, and constantly changing.

But can we trust it? The aim of this post is to review some of the arguments for and against trusting Wikipedia, and arrive at some tentative conclusions.

Reuniting STS with HPS

I have recently attended a talk by Harvard Professor Sheila Jasanoff at Bar Ilan University’s STS Program. Jasanoff is one of the founding members of the field of STS (which stands for “Science and Technology Studies” or “Science Technology & Society ” aka “Science Studies” and “Social Studies of Science” – which tells you something about its fragmented history). She talked about the history of STS and her vision of its future.

Jasanoff’s talk was partly a response to a recent attack on STS by historian of science Professor Lorraine Daston1 on behalf of the older sister discipline of history of science. Daston has argued that while both STS and history of science drew the lesson that science is social from Thomas Kuhn’s influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), they have interpreted it differently. Historians of science (cultural historians, to be precise, who for Daston are the most dominant today) have interpreted “social” as “historically situated in a particular culture”. They drew the right lesson which is that science should be studied in its historical context without historians’ imposing their present knowledge back on the past. By contrast, STS scholars interpreted “social” as “political”, and drew the wrong lesson that science should be studied like politics. Consequently, STS scholars have been applying general political or quasi-political theoretical frameworks to different case studies from science. These frameworks presuppose that science is basically the same in different periods, and hence can be analyzed in the same terms. By doing that, STS scholars have abandoned the study of what science is, or so Daston argues.

  1. Daston, Lorraine. 2009. Science Studies and the History of Science. Critical Inquiry 35(4): 798-813.

Should Governments Fund Big Science?

This year, twenty two years after its initiation, the CERN Large Hadron Collider – the largest research project ever carried out in human history – became operational. It is said that it is expected to “address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing humanity’s understanding of the deepest laws of nature,” one of which is confirming the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle.

Thousands of physicists, engineers, technicians, and computer programmers from forty countries are involved in this project. The cost of the project is estimated at more than five billion(!) Euro. While Europe eventually built the CERN Large Hadron Collider, in 1993 U.S. Congress officially canceled the counterpart American project due to its heavy costs. Are this project and others like it worth their price?

What are we to make of physicists’ claims to be pursuing the “grand theory of everything”? Are such claims to be taken at face value, or are they fuelled by naive and unwarranted reductionism?

If we do find this theory of everything, is it worth the cost? What benefit will this theory have for people other than the esoteric group of specialists who can understand it?

Was this project inevitable? Could there have been cheaper ways to pursue the same questions?

What stand should humanities and social science people, in particular HPS and STS people, take on this issue? Should they ally themselves with their fellow researchers and support their quest for knowledge for its own sake? Should they try to get some of the pouring money for themselves, and insist on there being positions for ethnographers, ethicists and their like in such projects? Or should they use their own knowledge to problematize physicists’ reductionist claims, and question whether this turn physics took was inevitable?

Moreover, in today’s climate, where humanities programs all over the world are fighting for their survival and are required to justify their existence, should humanities people point out that the physicists are the big spenders, and their existence should be justified as well? Should they even claim to be able to deliver the same goods, namely answers to fundamental questions of “life, the universe and everything” for a fraction of the cost?


Why Do We Care about Knowledge?

In the dialogue Meno, Plato raises the question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. While this question is old, only recently has the debate about it resurfaced in contemporary philosophy, where philosophers have noted that leading contemporary theories of knowledge face difficulties with addressing it.

So, do we care about knowledge because of its practical applications? But some of the knowledge we have and seek to have seems to have no such practical application. Maybe we care about knowledge because it facilitates understanding? But it seems that knowledge and understanding may come apart in some cases. Does knowledge have intrinsic value? If so, by virtue of what? Do we have inherent natural curiosity we need to satisfy? Do we care more about scientific knowledge? Have your say.…

Knowledge and Practical Interests

According to recent views in philosophy of science and epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) the concept of knowledge is inherently related to practical concerns. In such views, whether a person knows a certain claim depends not only on the truth of the claim and the evidence she possesses to support this claim, but also on facts about her practical interests and social values. Specifically, if she has high stakes with regard to the claim, she is in a worse position to know that claim than a person with low or no stakes regarding it.

For example, suppose that Jack is in a train station, and is about to board a train to Toronto. He doesn’t know if he is at the right platform. He asks a random person at the platform, who looks like another passenger, whether this is the train to Toronto, and that person says that it is. Does Jack know based on this person’s testimony that this is the train to Toronto? According to these recent views, the answer to this question depends on his interests. If it is very important for Jack to arrive in Toronto on time, for example, to attend an important meeting, then he might not know this, and need to make further inquiries, such as asking a train station employee. But if it does not matter to Jack so much, then this random person’s testimony is enough to grant him knowledge on this matter.

Recently, I have been thinking about these views. In this post I will review some of the arguments in support of them, hopefully in an accessible manner, and share some of my initial thoughts about them.…

Is Scientific Knowledge Anything Special?

Distinguished philosopher of science Helen Longino says, “It is tempting to think that scientific knowledge is like ordinary knowledge except better”.1 Scientists are not the only ones who purport to make knowledge claims about the world. Courtrooms, police detectives, historians, investigative reporters, and many more make such claims too. Is scientific knowledge any different from other forms of knowledge? Is it in some sense better?  If so, by virtue of what? Is it, perhaps, worse? Science is increasingly complex, demanding the cooperation of more people with varying expertise, and becoming more susceptible to the influence of commercial interests. Does this make it less reliable than other forms of knowledge? Have your say.

  1. Helen Longino (2002). The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press: p. 124.

The Science and Politics of Daylight Savings Time in Israel

In Israel, the starting date of daylight savings time is a matter of fierce political controversy between its religious Jewish and its secular Jewish citizens. Religious Jews and their political representatives want daylight savings time to end early in the year before Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur fast ends with sundown, and without daylight savings time it ends an hour earlier. It also enables observant Jews to have sunrise morning prayers before the start of the workday. Secular Jews, by contrast, resent the loss of an extra hour of light and the energy waste it causes.

Daylight savings time used to change according to the political views of the minister of interior affairs, but a few years ago, secular and religious members of the Israeli parliament reached a compromise and enacted a statute that sets a fixed mechanism for determining the length of the daylight savings period. This year, daylight savings happened to end particularly early in the year, and the public controversy heated up again.…

Climate Change: Should We Speak of Consensus?

In a recent lecture, Naomi Oreskes, a distinguished historian of science from the ‎University of California, San Diego, has argued that there is and has been a scientific ‎consensus that human-caused global warming is occurring. She persuasively shows that the ‎sceptical claims about human-caused global warming have not originated from within ‎the scientific community, but rather from politically motivated external ‎actors who, consciously and one would even say cynically, have been artificially ‎manufacturing controversy on the subject.‎

What are we, however, to make of this claim? On its own, the existence of a scientific ‎consensus does not indicate that the consensus view is correct. Oreskes does have a ‎point about the consensus being initially shared by people of different political views. But ‎it seems that for her – in this lecture at least – politics affect only one side of the debate. ‎Doesn’t it need to be shown that, at least once the climate debate became politicized, ‎similar political influences have not affected the other side as well?‎