The Amateur’s Revenge

Posing as a physicist—and getting away with it.

Harry Collins

W.H. Auden once remarked, “When I am in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.” Scientists often do have an aristocratic air. After all, they know things—important things, nature’s secrets—that the rest of us could never understand ourselves. Or could we?

In a recent experiment of his design, British sociologist Harry Collins asked a scientist who specializes in gravitational waves to answer seven questions about the physics of these waves. Collins, who has made an amateur study of this field for more than 30 years but has never actually practiced it, also answered the questions himself. Then he submitted both sets of answers to a panel of judges who are themselves gravitational-wave researchers. The judges couldn’t tell the impostor from one of their own. Collins argues that he is therefore as qualified as anyone to discuss this field, even though he can’t conduct experiments in it.

Collins’ feat startled the scientific community. The journal Nature predicted that the experiment would have a broad impact, writing that Collins could help settle the “science wars of the 1990s,” “when sociologists launched what scientists saw as attacks on the very nature of science, and scientists responded in kind,” accusing the sociologists of misunderstanding science. More generally, it could affect “the argument about whether an outsider, such as an anthropologist, can properly understand another group, such as a remote rural community.” With this comment, Nature seemed to be saying that if a sociologist can understand physics, then anyone can understand anything.

Well, maybe. It will be interesting to see if Collins’ results can indeed be repeated in different situations. Meanwhile, his experiment is plenty interesting in itself. Just one of the judges succeeded in distinguishing Collins’ answers from those of the trained experts. One threw up his hands. And the other seven declared Collins the physicist. He didn’t simply do as well as the trained specialist—he did better, even though the test questions demanded technical answers. One sample answer from Collins gives you the flavor: “Since gravitational waves change the shape of spacetime and radio waves do not, the effect on an interferometer of radio waves can only be to mimic the effects of a gravitational wave, not reproduce them.” (More details can be found in this paper Collins wrote with his collaborators.)

To be sure, a differently designed experiment would have presented more difficulty for Collins. If he’d chosen questions that involved math, they would have done him in for sure; he knows next to none of the mathematics that gravitational-wave physicists use. But many scientists consider themselves perfectly qualified to discuss topics for which they lack the underlying mathematical skills, as Collins noted when I talked to him. “You can be a great physicist and not know any mathematics,” he said. To take an extreme example, you needn’t have solved gravitational equations to know that you shouldn’t jump out a window. So, if Collins can talk gravitational waves as well as an insider, who cares if he doesn’t know how to crunch the numbers?

Alan Sokal does. The New York University physicist is famous for an experiment a decade ago that seemed to demonstrate the futility of laymen discussing science. In 1996, he tricked the top humanities journal Social Text into publishing as genuine scholarship a totally nonsensical paper that celebrated fashionable literary theory and then applied it to all manner of scientific questions. (“As Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory.”) Sokal showed that, with a little flattery, laymen could be induced to swallow the most ridiculous of scientific canards—so why should we value their opinions on science as highly as scientists’?

Sokal doesn’t think Collins has proved otherwise. When I reached him this week, he acknowledged that you don’t need to practice science in order to understand it. But he maintains, as he put it to Nature, that in many science debates, “you need a knowledge of the field that is virtually, if not fully, at the level of researchers in the field,” in order to participate. He elaborated: Say there are two scientists, X and Y. If you want to argue that X’s theory was embraced over Y’s, even though Y’s is better, because the science community is biased against Y, then you had better be able to read and evaluate their theories yourself, mathematics included (or collaborate with someone who can). He has a point. Just because mathematics features little in the work of some gravitational-wave physicists doesn’t mean it’s a trivial part of the subject.

Even if Collins didn’t demonstrate that he is qualified to pronounce on all of gravitational-wave physics, he did learn more of the subject than anyone may have thought possible. Sokal says he was shocked by Collins’ store of knowledge: “He knows more about gravitational waves than I do!” Sokal admitted that Collins was already qualified to pronounce on a lot, and that with a bit more study, he would be the equal of a professional. If, as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking put it, scientists peer into “the mind of God,” then Auden may have been right to feel like a “shabby curate” in their company. What Auden didn’t realize is that he could have done something about it.