Considering the Historical Context

At a talk I gave in Sheffield last week the local MP Meg Munn remarked on the fact that, being a non-scientist, she had learned a lot about how science is done from reading my blog (in particular this one, in which I refer to my habitual use of post-it notes). As a scientist it is easy to take this for granted because of course one knows one’s own way of working; to the non-scientist it may appear mysterious. In any case, there are bound to be differences between the disciplines as well as individual styles in turning experiments into analysis and finally papers.  Being very familiar with one’s own methods doesn’t mean there isn’t much to be learned from someone else’s.

In my undergraduate lectures I also like to say a bit about how science worked, and I deliberately put that verb in the past text. I like to include facts about how the science I’m teaching came about, not least to point out just how different our lives are now in the lab, what challenges scientists from Newton and Hooke on for the next couple of hundred years had to face lacking the things we now take for granted such as computers, cameras and speedy communication methods. Teaching first year waves and optics I always include the diagram Newton’s incorporated in a letter to the Royal Society explaining how he had used a prism to split light into component colours and then reassembled the rays with a second prism. I regret to say I feel a collective yawn from my audience when I do this. I am always struck by the challenges Newton faced, not only because the only experimental tools that he could lay his hands on were so simple, but also because of the difficulties of reproducing the set-up of the apparatus for others to appreciate simply with pen and ink. I’m not convinced students find it as striking.

Limitations of early experimental kit must have been even more challenging for Hooke as he stared down his early microscope and tried to sketch what he saw: a flea, a louse or the structure of cork (based on which he coined the word ‘cell’). The skills involved in drawing, turning his eye from the eyepiece to paper and back again, ultimately produced delicate drawings of a beauty that most of us aren’t able to achieve even if simply copying his own work. For those of us who have always had a camera of some sort attached to a microscope it is an amazing feat to produce such wonderful works of art-science.

Another historical episode I like to cover in this particular course is the development of astronomical telescopes in William Herschel‘s hands. I want to impress upon the students that making large, perfect lenses was a major challenge when these had to be polished meticulously by hand. It also gives me a good opportunity to introduce a female researcher into the course, in the form of sister Caroline, and to point out (that as far as I know) she was the first (UK) woman to receive a government grant for her work. This anecdote too feels as if it falls on stony ground.

I fear the students I teach do not care for this kind of discussion. I want to impress upon them a sense of wonder, of progress and how technical advances drive scientific ones forward. They want to learn enough to pass exams and, presumably, no more. I can’t say I blame them, but I do feel I have to try to open their eyes to more than the syllabus, at least in passing. However, I well remember my own bafflement when a keen lecturer tried similarly to enthuse me with a bit of experimental history during my own undergraduate years. In this case what I recall was a description of the Henry Cavendish experiment on electrostatics. What was the point of this historical diversion, I thought at the time. Nevertheless, it must have made some sort of impression on me in so far as I still recall the episode all these years later, but what I took away from it other than considering it irrelevant to my future revision I really am not sure.

So what is the correct answer? Should lecturers persist in trying to put their material in some sort of historical context? Or is that more for their personal satisfaction than for good didactic reasons? I don’t know if it is simply that, with increasing years, that the desire to make sense of how science develops becomes stronger, how my curiosity now is driven as much by how progress occurs as to what the progress is. I would like to think that perhaps, amongst those 400+ students who dutifully turn up to listen to my lectures there are a handful who will appreciate the messages I’m trying to give by my few historical interludes. But I am curious to know how others tackle this question and whether they feel there is a correct answer.

To return, as I began, with my Sheffield talk. It was billed as the start of their Science week. Another event that was mentioned during the day was a re-enactment of Von Guericke‘s  experiment to demonstrate the nature of a vacuum. Maybe this is the better, more concrete way of revealing how experimental science used to be rather than a mere reproduction of a drawing on a powerpoint slide. Certainly the idea of teams of horses straining to pull apart an evacuated vessels –which was what Von Guericke experiment consisted of   – is more likely to stick in the mind of an impressionable youngster than just another bit of Microsoft software (albeit it turns out university students were going to be used in lieu of horses: cheaper I suppose!). But, interestingly, this experiment was actually devised by Von Guericke because of the lack of excitement his work generated using more modest demonstrations. He was aiming for, and got, a bit of media exposure to interest the public in the science. Plus ça change?

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Getting the Writing Right

As one moves through life, there are many different types of writing one needs to master. Schooling may produce a standardised kind of essay which is of only limited use when it comes to writing one’s thesis. Many universities will run courses/online tutorials to advise students how to proceed, but as often as not one learns by example. There are so many little things to pick up along the way and it is easy to miss some of them; sometimes I fear the writer may be suffering from a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. If you are struggling with the actual content, the presentation may suffer without notice. Topics that can go astray on a first pass, in my experience, include omission of page numbers, appropriate use of sections plus accompanying sub-headings and a consistent style of citing references.

I am particularly baffled by the number of students who fail to master the art of writing a figure caption.   Some fail to write one at all, not even assigning a number to each figure; some simply copy chunks out of the text without real reference to the figure itself thereby not describing what it is, merely identifying the features they want to highlight; some do the exact opposite and have a splendid figure and caption which in turn is never mentioned anywhere in the chapter. When stuck in the middle of trying to get the text down, figures may in some senses be the last thing on one’s mind. Nevertheless, for thesis and for paper writing there is a lot to be said for using the figures as the skeleton around which the text, analysis and arguments are presented. Once you know you have the complete set of figures you may, after all, have confidence the thesis is coming together and a submission date becomes imaginable for the first time.

But of course, life doesn’t end with the thesis (although sometimes it may feel like that) and as you move up through the hierarchy (in academia or outside) new challenges of writing arise. One of the first letters of reference I ever wrote – back in the days predating word processors so I had written something and passed it on to the group secretary – was sent back to me by the secretary who at the time had infinitely more experience than me as to the right way to write a reference. This won’t do, she told me, they’ll never get the job if you say that, it’s far too rude! I had not at that time mastered, as I hope I have now, that less is often more. I had made the mistake of saying outright that the person concerned was completely unsuitable for the position under consideration without spelling out their strengths and weaknesses.

I read a lot of references these days, for all kinds of different situations. It is interesting to see what people are and aren’t prepared to say and to compare cultural differences. From the US it is not uncommon to see long, meticulously detailed descriptions of the minutiae of the work some individual has done followed (for instance in the case of a lectureship candidate) by a statement to the effect that the person has the potential to win a Nobel Prize, be as good as some eminent figure in the field or some such similar accolade.  The problems arise when the same referee writes references for more than one candidate and uses the exact same hyperbole. It weakens the case more than somewhat but I have seen it occur two or three times. Foolish and unhelpful.

Some references are amusing to read by the vitriol expressed, but these are few and far between. Others tell you more about the writer than the candidate under consideration, to the extent of an actual attachment of a full CV of the referee in rare cases, to show how important they are and therefore how much value should be placed on their words. Others are bland to the point of worthlessness. And, thinking of worth, there is no more lethal word in a reference than ‘worthy’.  If someone (or their work) is ‘worthy’ they tend to be dead in the water, being killed by faint praise. What one is looking for are stellar words, albeit appropriate to the stage of the candidate. One wouldn’t expect a postdoc applicant to be described as ‘internationally leading’ but for a prospective professor you might well need to have such a phrase attached if appointment is likely to ensue.

Letters of reference have their own quirks and at times the writer’s predelictions come through. You won’t be surprised to know I have a particular eye for gendered statements (see this and this for a more general discussion of the problems that seem too often to be inherent in what is written about women). If a woman is described has having 15 out of a set of 20 papers entwined with a collaborator’s, and you then discover said collaborator is their husband, it is relevant to wonder if anyone would ever write the same statement in reverse. Too easily it is assumed that the male’s voice is the dominant one. Maybe it was in this case, maybe it wasn’t. And even if they’re a pair of collaborators who are not married similar assumptions about who is the lead may apply.

When it comes to refereeing papers again too often it is the character of the writer that comes through, with their personal prejudices, rather than an analysis of the actual paper. It is always tempting to remark on the absence of references to one’s own work, but often that is more vanity than a genuine criticism. Referee’s reports that attempt to discuss how the writer would have tackled the problem in some totally different way are also not usually helpful: what matters is what light the research casts on the field rather than whether there are other experiments that might also be interesting waiting to be done. And criticisms of the sort that as usual X has missed the point or is working in the wrong field can only be seen as vindictive rather than helpful.

So whatever stage one is at, it is important to try to work out what is wanted by the reader. Writing a stream-of-consciousness thesis is unlikely to lead to a good outcome.  Using a piece of prose to blow one’s own trumpet, albeit dressed up as a critique of someone else’s life or work, is self-deluding and unhelpful. There is never a time in life when one shouldn’t be trying harder to make sure that what one writes both answers the (implicit) question and communicates the intended message.


Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Virginia Woolf’s Messages for Today

Although I read many of her novels as a teenager, I only came to reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own somewhat late in life. I have recently reread it. On a second reading I am even more struck by it than I was the first time. It is still so horrifyingly relevant, even 90 years on from its first appearance in print. Its message for women is as loud and pertinent as ever, but much of it equally applies to minorities and to anyone not brought up in security, affluence and kindness.

I was prompted to pick the book up again by way of reading a very different book about the society in which Woolf lived and, more particularly her personal household. This was Alison Light’s Mrs Woolf and the Servants which discusses the tangled relationship the Woolf couple had with their own servants. In part the complications were clearly a product of their time, as live-in domestics (particularly the women) found new ways to earn their keep beyond the house as a consequence of the First World War and increasing urbanisation. In part they clearly reflect the way the Woolfs lived and the privacy they dreamed of but never quite seemed to achieve when domestics were around. Being deprived of this privacy Woolf seems to have been quite an unreasonable despot towards her two long-term servants, if the excerpts from her diaries and letters quoted in this book are accurate. For a left-wing idealist she was a terrible snob, something that was far from uncommon in this period with its changing social mores and class structure, although it would seem she never noticed the conflict between reality and the ideal in this sphere.

But back to Virginia Woolf’s own essay, a mental exploration of the absence of women – in books but also as the authors of books and poems – essentially throughout history. Why this absence, she asks, and responds with the answer they lacked ‘a room of one’s own and £500‘. In other words, they lacked the ability to be independent and to think independent thoughts away from the throng, the servants and demands of family. They didn’t have the peace to go inside themselves to find the words they wanted to write. As her own career developed she began to have the security her earnings gave her (though she was upper-middle-class enough to have investments producing their own unearned income), but she usually was surrounded by her cook-general who intruded into her space. Hence it would appear she always felt the absence of a room that was really just her own private inviolable space even with the £500 in hand.

There are various notable quotes about women’s condition in the book relevant, still, to the world we live in. However I would posit that some of these remarks apply just as well to other minorities. It would be good to believe that the modern practice of blind marking has eradicated the inbuilt bias expressed by the oft-quoted Oscar Browning (a Victorian historian and educationalist), who

was wont to declare ‘that the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that irrespective of the marks he might give, that the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.’

Nevertheless blind marking doesn’t always occur. As an external examiner at one institution recently I have had to press to ensure that it really does happen in practice as well as intent. For projects and much experimental assessment it is just about impossible for it to take place anyhow. So, if examiners can think – as a teacher here in Cambridge has been quoted as saying – ‘why doesn’t she write like a man’, whatever that may mean, then women may still be being disadvantaged.

So, why doesn’t the female ‘write more like a man‘? Because (again to quote Woolf) a male author’s writing might suggest:

..such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself.  One had a sense of physical well-being in the presence of this well-nourished, well-educated free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked.

Many men would not feel they had that liberty, but I would hazard a guess (yes, it’s pure guesswork) that even more women might feel those sentences could not possibly apply to them. Girls at school encouraged to conform, to play safe and so not stretch themselves where they would. Will they have the confidence to do their own thing, whatever that own thing might be, to achieve the integrity that Woolf believed was essential if an author was to be able to produce convincing words? I believe that freedom not to spend your life looking over your shoulder to see if your actions are being met with approval, not to feel a potential outcast by virtue of what you wish to do or have dared to do, is something too many lack.

If you have made the grade as a female engineer but are constantly being met with ‘oh I wasn’t expecting a woman‘ when you turn up on the building site to head up the team; if you are a female scientist whose fashion sense (or bodily shape) is constantly being commented on by male peers as you try to carry out your experiments, you are likely to waste time and energy combatting the anxieties produced by the comments. That means you have less to devote to the task in hand. I am quite sure there are equivalent situations if you are a BME or fit into some other minority category; I suspect this applies equally if you are a male nurse.

For many (women but possibly even more particularly men) I am sure there is the sense they ‘went to the wrong school‘ – or some other equivalent. I once heard a view along these lines expressed by an offguard Government Minister, who implied he felt more vulnerable as a non-Etonian than his more fortunate (i.e Eton-educated) colleagues.  Such consequent lack of security is likely to hold anyone in such a position back as they cannot attain Woolf’s ascribed ‘freedom of mind’. This is not simply and crudely a ‘woman thing’, but the situation was so well expressed in this essay in that context.

Finally, I would like to highlight another couple of sentences from Woolf that I suspect we can all recognize, at least in someone else if not ourselves.

Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with that inferiority, but with his own superiority….Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle.  And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself.  By feeling that one has some innate superiority.

This may have a lot to do with the unconscious bias I and others have written about so frequently (e.g. here). It doesn’t have to be a professor, it could be your line manager or, in the case of Maggie Thatcher with her queen bee syndrome, the Prime Minister. The fact is that if you are up against someone whose only security is to inflate their own superiority, you have a hard battle on your hands. So many of us like to kick the office cat metaphorically, in order to reassure ourselves we are not really at the bottom of the pile; it is often easy to forget the cat has feelings too and will never grow up to be big and brave if treated this way. It behoves us all to read Virigina Woolf’s words and remember that – wherever we sit currently in the hierarchy – having self-confidence is one thing, believing you are innately superior to everyone around is quite another.

A post for International Women’s Day 2014



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Taking the Chair

I was interested to discover recently that candidates for the headship of a certain Cambridge college were required to chair a mock Governing Body meeting (this was not part of my own selection process at Churchill I should say). I can see why a college would think this was a good idea. The ability to chair is a crucial one, one that seems never to be taught – except by example, good or bad – but which can make so much difference to a committee’s outcome.  Furthermore, I am led to believe that in some colleges there are an awful lot of committees; indeed I heard the number 26 quoted by someone for their own particular college recently (this happened to be an Oxford one), a number which I personally find astonishing. So, ensuring that the person you are about to commit yourself to for a number of years is competent to keep good order, ensure good results and do it all graciously and with a smile may make excellent sense.

I am reminded about this, not because I’m suffering from sleepless nights as I contemplate the array of committees I will soon be chairing in Churchill, but because of a question that was put to me over Twitter: what to do when two members of a committee take up 95% of the airtime? My own response was that it was down to the Chair to shut them up and keep firm control on the discussions to prevent such a monopoly, but I was then told that one of the offenders was actually the Chair. That does cause problems. I have sat on committees like that, or rather on a committee where the Chair alone took up a disproportionate amount of the time so that no one else got much of a look-in.

This behaviour reduced the committee in question to something of a rubber-stamping farce, because what decisions can be taken beyond those the Chair themselves push if the others present can never get a word in edgeways? After a few meetings like that the dynamics are so flawed that, at least in the case I recall,  everyone else just gave up. We may have sat through the meetings but we had zero expectation of anything useful being done. Maybe we were all wimps and should have staged a coup, but there were reasons why that would have been difficult. I have written previously about how I handled the Chair of a committee who persistently referred to us as ‘gentlemen’ and how, with a little bit of help from my (male) friends on the committee he was stopped in his tracks. Not a coup, but certainly a triumph in a minor skirmish which made the remaining meetings somewhat more pleasant at least for me and the other women around the table (of whom there were several). However, if the Chair is the prime offender when it comes to monopolising the discussion I’m afraid I have no simple solution to offer and would be pleased to hear suggestions from readers in the comments!

The Twitter question came my way at just about the time that Mary Beard was giving her lecture on the Public Voice of Women at the British Museum in which she discussed how, from the times of the Odyssey on, there has been a tendency to shut the women up, In classical times this was not of course in committee meetings but simply any ‘public space’. She alluded to the ‘Miss Triggs‘ Punch cartoon I often use in my own talks about the challenges faced too boringly often by women at committees. (If you don’t know it, the text reads ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.). The need for good chairing is all the more important if the committee has members who are prone to talk over others, of either gender, or who just don’t know when to shut up (see what I said about ‘Standing up to the bullies’ previously).

Sorting out the ‘Miss Triggs’ issue is easier for any committee member to do than shutting the Chair up. Anyone can say, if someone else tries to nick the idea that was originally hers, that they feel Miss Triggs had said that already and it would be good to allow her to expound on it. If the Chair hasn’t the nous or grace to do this then it is helpful if one of the saner members of the committee chip in on this front. But it is harder to shut up the drone (wherever they sit round the table) who just meanders on or the overpowering egotist who can’t imagine that anyone else could either a) have anything useful to say or b) not automatically agree with them. That really has to be the Chair’s responsibility which is why it is so hard when the Chair is the prime offender.

By this stage in my life I have chaired a good many committees of many different complexions. One of the reasons I think using a mock committee meeting as part of a selection process is not entirely satisfactory is that often one has prior knowledge of the committee members. You are likely to know who is the bore, who the extrovert, who the smart-ass and who the salt-of-the-earth you definitely want onside. You most certainly are likely to know their attributes (by which I mean their role, discipline, seniority or who they are representing), at least if you’ve done your homework. With any luck you know their name too (or have made sure there are those things I always think of as Toblerones on the table to remind you who is who). So, walking into a room cold with none of these facts at your disposal and then being asked to lead a discussion of the siting of the new bicycle shed or the wisdom of accepting a donation from an alumnus who made their money in armaments may be much trickier than the reality would in fact be.

However, despite the fact I have chaired many different groups, I have never formally had any instruction in what to do. Maybe other institutions run courses on the topic but as far as I’m concerned it’s just one of those many things for which I have been thrown in at the deep end. The first time I chaired a grant-giving committee I took advice from a more senior colleague as to how she ran similar meetings, and very good advice she gave me too: let everyone have their say and then draw the discussion to a conclusion. Never jump in too soon or people will be left dissatisfied.

But letting everyone have their say is exactly where things can go wrong, with meetings dragging on way beyond the stated end time and a sense of frustration and restlessness pervading the room. So, in my experience, I do tend to shut people up when things show signs of getting out of hand or when someone is showing a bulldog-like tenaciousness about some point in which they are in a minority of one. I also, always, have an eye on the clock: keeping your committee past their lunchtime or denying them a ‘comfort break’ at an appropriate moment will not lead to optimum discussions in my view. The troops get restless.

But letting everyone have their say, making sure Miss (or Mr)Triggs is not derailed, talked over or never allowed even to open her (his) mouth must be a key goal for a Chair. If the usual suspects are the only ones who get to speak then the only outcome will be what amounts to the status quo or a sectional interest of dubious worth. If good decisions are to be made the input of all who wish to contribute should be valued and heard even if, for any particular question, not everyone necessarily has the same expertise. A committee in which a small minority is allowed to dominate time and time again is not a committee whose decisions are likely to be wise.


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There’s More to Us than Lab Coats

This book review first appeared in Times Higher Education on February 27th 2014

Are We All Scientific Experts Now?
By Harry Collins
Polity, 168pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9780745682037 and 82044
Published 28 February 2014

“Thanks to climate change scams, swine flu and a whole host of own-goals, the status of the white-coated prima donnas and narcissists has never been lower in the public esteem…After a period of priestlike authority, the pointy-heads in lab coats have reassumed the role of mad cranks they enjoyed from the days of Frankenstein to boys’ comics in the 1950s.” So wrote The Daily Telegraph’s Gerald Warner four years ago in the wake of the sacking of David Nutt as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Is that really how the public see scientists? Or, as Harry Collins puts it, are we all scientific experts now?

Collins is a sociologist of science, or rather, as he likes to put it, he works in the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge. Indeed, he is one of its early proponents. The idea of “priestlike authority” he would equate with what he calls “Wave One” in his field, when scientists were believed to be infallible authorities working on ideas that could be directly tested in the laboratory.However, unlike Warner, Collins saw the “priests” being defrocked back in the 1960s and 1970s, as studies started to show that scientists were actually rather human. They swore, they made mistakes, they didn’t always agree with each other, and a lot of their lives were spent in mundane tasks such as making coffee and filling in requisition forms for test tubes and gasket seals. These apparently unexpected truths were revealed in Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s classic book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979) and elsewhere.

This seeming humanisation of scientists meant that, to many researchers, they were no longer seen as special, and over the next 25 years of “Wave Two” they (including Collins himself) downplayed the expertise of scientists in one way or another. This was one part of the “science wars” story that claimed that scientists had no firmer a grip on facts and truth than anyone else: since science was a social activity, results could be coloured by who presented them and so could not represent ultimate truth. One outcome was the recognition that many different groups of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, should contribute to decisions. This has become widely accepted in the years since, although these decisions may often be skewed by political demands to as great a degree as the science itself, a point Collins completely overlooks here.

Collins sought to explore the idea of expertise further and, based on the time he spent embedded in a gravitational waves research group, he introduced what he termed “interactional expertise”, believing he could effectively masquerade as a gravitational wave researcher without ever having studied the underlying science. As he puts it here: “Interactional expertise is acquired by engaging in the spoken discourse of an expert community to the point of fluency but without participating in the practical activities or deliberately contributing to those activities.” Developing the question of what expertise is, and the different flavours it comes in, occupies a substantial part of Are We All Scientific Experts Now?: a close-focus discussion of different sorts of expertise, ranging from that of the “beer mat” expert to those who genuinely can contribute to new knowledge, in other words, practising scientists.

Scientists are treated, throughout this book, as a monolithic grouping, which is obviously a vast oversimplification. The idea that there is only one way of doing science, which we can call “the” scientific method, is a view to which historians of science no longer subscribe. Furthermore, scientists are much less a race apart than Collins would imply; I believe it is dangerous to treat us as such and is likely only to reinforce the oft discussed but somewhat imaginary and unnecessary fault line between science and the arts. Nevertheless, the virtues ascribed to scientists in Wave One of the sociology of scientific knowledge by researchers such as Robert Merton, of being “universalistic”, working by “organised scepticism” and driven by “disinterestedness”, probably do apply across the spectrum of science.

Where I think this book is strongest and the message most important is where Collins takes his ideas about different levels of expertise and translates them into the context of recent controversies. Was former South African president Thabo Mbeki creating a “fake scientific controversy” (to use Collins’ useful terminology) with his selective use of discredited science to drive his country’s attitude towards HIV/ Aids treatments? Did journalists let parents and children down in driving the scare over the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination based on one man’s flawed research? What about the apparent “tricks” alluded to in the “Climategate” emails leaked or stolen from the University of East Anglia – were the scientists behaving honestly?

The answer in all these cases, Collins says, is clearly yes and his analysis is useful. It would be good to believe that the media will learn that what they claim is evidence of “balance” in reporting some stories serves simply to perpetuate untruths that the collective scientific community – those who can claim the highest level of expertise and who are speaking with more or less a single voice – have examined and rejected.

This viewpoint may also explain why, in general, scientists are reluctant to appear on programmes such as BBC One’s Question Time: since they do tend to like to be precise, the requirement to give soundbites and lessthan-nuanced responses to questions that are often beyond their area of expertise is unlikely to be appealing. And even when a microphone is thrust under their nose to respond to a question that is in their field, they are still likely to want to hedge their response to reflect genuine uncertainties. This isn’t a case of being slippery; it is a case of being frank within their confidence levels. Unfortunately, that isn’t always how the media report such uncertainty.

This is certainly a book for those who are interested in science and its role in society, rather than for practitioners themselves. For the former group I believe it ought to convey important messages. It is intended to be provocative and its introductory chapter infuriated me until I realised that Collins was putting forward straw men that the rest of the book was going to shoot down. He has come full circle in his arguments and, after many years (and several books), he has accepted that we are not all equal when it comes to science. Scientists do have, by virtue of their experience and training, a special place when it comes to knowledge, and Collins is now prepared to admit it. This could be seen as a recantation of his earlier, and much more negative, position. Indeed, he is quite disingenuous in the way he presents his position here, burying his own earlier scepticism about what expertise scientists possess.

This book doesn’t address the issue of how science should interface with policy and politics, although that is the context of many of Collins’ examples (turn to Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics if you want to grasp that particular nettle). It will doubtless fail to disabuse doubters such as Warner, and indeed many in the media, of the notion that scientists are knowingly engaged in a giant climate change scam. But for others who are curious about how scientists tackle problems and why they do often have the answers, it should prove illuminating.


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