A conversation with Harry Collins: further details on post-truth, the history of STS and its impact on Latin America

Luis Reyes-Galindo*

As part of a guest lecture on ‘post-truth’ that I prepared for DPCT at Unicamp, I approached my mentor and colleague Prof. Harry Collins from Cardiff University to gain a more intimate perspective on how this debate impacts his current work. Harry is no stranger to controversy within Science and Technology Studies (STS) and we have both been at odds – though for slightly different reasons – with the way the STS mainstream has chosen to tackle the so-called ‘age of post-truth’ debate (see Collins 2017, and responses in that same issue).

To that end, I asked Harry for a long-distance, email interview which he kindly replied to and which he has allowed us to publish online. The Q&A was first presented to students at DPCT and led to a lively conversation on STS, the role for it in Latin America, the very idea that we now live in a ‘post-truth age’ simply because of certain political events in particular ‘Northern’ geographies (the type of political turmoil that is the stuff of everyday life in Latin America), amongst other related topics. The questions have been only been mildly edited for clarity, and to reflect a misunderstanding of a reading of Monteiro (2017) which was then clarified with the author:

LRG: The early history of STS includes some well-known arguments where ‘symmetry’ was paramount, as explained by Lynch (2017) in another response to your paper (Collins et al 2017) and also commented on by Sismondo (2017b) in his response. I had always understood the symmetry principles of SSK and EPOR to be intended as methodological tools, and was always dubious about Latour’s wider use, but in Collins et al. (2017) and in recent conversations you seem to have backtracked from this position. Would it be correct to say that your position has changed regarding symmetry as only methodological, even at in limited way SSK/EPOR used it? Are there differences between SSK/EPOR symmetry and ‘other’ symmetries in this respect?

HMC: These are very interesting questions and I am pleased to have been made to think about them.


Prof. Harry Collins
Distinguished Research Professor, Cardiff University – UK

First, the Latour switch to hyper-symmetry is nothing to do with symmetry as intended by Bloor and used by myself and I do not know why Lynch mentioned it; Latour was doing something different. Symmetry is, as you say, a methodological approach and one that is necessary to do good history and sociology of science.  My position is better understood as having to do with relativism. From my 1975 ‘Seven Sexes’ paper to my 1981 ‘TRASP’ paper I was a philosophical relativist. I considered my studies of scientific practice had proved that what counts as scientific truth was a ‘social construct’. Then I realised that no such thing could be proved and I became a ‘methodological relativist’. (I don’t understand the difference with this and Bloor’s symmetry, but he [Bloor] thinks there is one.)

Now, the very good question which you ask, or imply, is, if the relativism is merely methodological how come it has any bearing on post-truth?  The answer is two-fold.  Firstly, philosophical: as regards scientific truth, in 1981 I switched from relativism to agnosticism; I don’t think the social constructivist position can be disproved any more than it can be proved and I am always having arguments with those –notably philosophers – who consider that social constructivism has been disproved – they produce glib ‘knock-downs’ of anyone they disagree with scientifically; it’s terrible stuff.  

The second answer is empirical: the philosophical- relativism, methodological-relativism or symmetry driven studies did show us new things about science that weakened science’s position in the world of knowledge. For example, it showed that one could not simply settle the matter of the scientifically true or false by straightforward replication of experiments – as was strongly believed before around 1975. So it showed that scientific truth even if it was knowable, was not knowable easily or quickly – we now understood why ‘science advances funeral by funeral’ and we now knew that, in the short term anyway (and policy is made in the short term), science and politics were difficult to extricate.

Notice, that in recent works such as Why Democracies Need Science, Evans and I are very careful never to cite science’s success as a justification. So I am not sure whether what you perceive as a change is a change.  I don’t see any change since 1981 and not such a huge one even then. The lack of change in 1981 is that it still followed philosophically and empirically from methodological relativism that science was, at least in the short term, much less secure than before, much more bound up with society and politics, and of course, now available to a sociology of knowledge analysis along with everything else (contra Mannheim).

LRG: You argue there is a clear resonance between STS positions and post-truth politics. Do you think that STS is ‘post-truth’? Is there only resonance, or a deeper link, between STS’s (epistemic?) position, and that of ‘post-truth’?

HMC: I incline to think that ‘science studies’, or better, SSK (I don’t know if there is a coherent thing called STS), did probably have some causal effect on post-truth since I think the demonstration of things like the difficulty of the use of replication as a criterion provided a philosophical underpinning for post-modernism as a whole. But to prove the foundational effect would be a difficult piece of historical analysis.  

What I prefer to ask is: ‘what can STS say to post-truth; what arguments does it have against post-truth?’ If it has no arguments, or, if it resonates with post-truth, then that, to me, is just as serious as having had a causal effect in its creation. You can’t say, for example, ‘I’m a racist but it doesn’t matter because no-one listens to me’ or even ‘I won’t employ black people but I never said I was a racist’.

I find it bizarre that Sismondo, Jasanoff et al. should claim that there is no resonance between science studies and post-truth.  This seems to me to be turning a blind eye to the history of the enterprise; there was a colossal upheaval in the social understanding of science around the early 1970s and it moved science from its independent knowledge pinnacle to a position much closer to other kinds of cultural enterprise. I lived through that change and had to fight for my academic life in order to defend it. I cannot understand how people can deny the change happened. But we know that the reinterpretation of history is something that academics and certain others like to do.  

It is the case that if you remove science from a special pinnacle of a-social true knowledge and make it something that has the same knowledge status as politics it must have a resonance with what is going on in the world. It must resonate with those who wish to deny the special, a-political, status of scientific experts and who use this as a justification to treat scientific experts as having no more rights when it comes to making claims about the state of the physical world than politicians or voters – or even less right since politicians are elected and voters have voting rights whereas experts have no rights at all outside of their expertise.

 My question to those who think that SSK and what followed did not potentially reduce the status of science and make it vulnerable in the face of populism is ‘What kind of analysis of science would have accomplished such a change?’ What is it that I am missing when I (along with the science warriors etc.) think that SSK and the rest did bring about such a change, at least conceptually if not social-causally?  I cannot think of any way in which, as academics, we could have done it more thoroughly. Of course, we didn’t go around shouting that we wanted to destroy science – quite the opposite – but the force of the arguments was clear to the point of embarrassing us since a radical reduction in the status of science was not what we wanted.     

The Third Wave is an attempt to show ways in which the pre-eminence of scientific experts can be preserved while maintaining an agnostic position regarding scientific truth.  This new way is thinking rests on a choice about the kind of society one wants to live in.

LRG: Monteiro (2017) briefly introduces what I think is an interesting angle, differences in the way ‘democracy’ and ‘science’ are underperforming in regions like Latin America, where we are quite used to seeing much worse and more cynical fact-hiding, fact-altering, fact-ignoring, science-bashing and outright lying from our politicians when they’re on stage than you see in the ‘Global North’. Yet because this practice has now gone ‘mainstream’ in US and UK politics, it has apparently been decided the world now lives in a post-truth age. You do however mention in your paper and have done so in other outlets that this is not the first time in European politics that this has happened. What is so special about the current situation which, in your view, merits the sustained interest of academics? When Monteiro refers to Merton’s 1938 paper, he states that it was written “in a period not unlike our own, in which questions about the value of both science and democracy were on the agenda.” Is the analogy between the present and ‘1938′ correct?

HMC: As a sociologist I am ever-conscious of the way the local environment effects the way we think about these matters and that Latin America, which I do not know very well, might be very different from Europe. For someone like me, born in Britain in 1943, the dominant event in my life is the Second World War. The aftermath of ‘the war’ (that is what we still call it without needing to qualify), dominated my young life and still dominates my thinking.  I am not alone in this, of course.  In this week’s Guardian newspaper (9 September p 5), John Le Carré, who is ten years older than me and has seen a lot more than I have, is quoted:

“Something truly, seriously bad is happening … These stages that Trump is going through in the United States and the stirring of racial hatred … a kind of burning of the books as he attacks, as he declares real news as fake news, and the law becomes fake news, everything becomes fake news.  I think of all the things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain and Japan [and] Germany.  To me these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it’s contagious…”

I can see that from South America, which has had its own far more recent dictatorships and ‘disappearances’, events in Europe 80 years ago may seem remote but there is, perhaps, a reason for everyone to take the similarities seriously nevertheless. This is because ‘the war’ was a world war, not a regional conflict and America, which took a large part in rescuing the world from that disaster, is still the most powerful country in the world with the capacity to destroy us all, and is now leading the movement toward the kind of society most of us don’t want rather than resisting it.  

I have never been so fearful in my life. I have never felt so strongly that I – someone who has always resisted the politicisation of science studies – should be putting a good proportion of my academic understanding to the service of combatting these terrifying changes, beside which every other immediate political concern seems minor.    

LRG: In another recent blog post, Jasanoff (2017) writes that “Science and democracy, at their best, are modest enterprises because both are mistrustful of their own authority.”  Likewise, Monteiro cites Jasanoff and her call for ‘more democracy in expertise’. Democracy is thus a central part of the debate, but it is not clear to me what models of ‘democracy’ is being set out on the table. How do you understand democracy within the post-truth debate, and does this democracy differ from that of scholars like Jasanoff?

Darrin Durant is probably the best analyst of democracy in respect of these issues.  Evans and I favour deliberative democracy. I have no idea what people like Jasanoff mean by democracy – somehow their vision of voters always seems to be of reasonable ‘people like us’. But, to give one example it was the public that created the, scientifically baseless, Mumps Measles and Rubella (MMR) vaccine scare, which has now given rise to measles epidemics.  I think Jasanoff supporters should face up to this kind of case – it’s a test case for their ideas – but they resolutely sidestep it or deliberately mis-describe it. Or consider that Trump was elected democratically in a democracy – isn’t what he and his followers stand for democracy?  What I want to see (like Merton in the 1930s), is democracy of this sort limited by expertise driven by scientific values and that is what deliberative democracy would allow; between elections, experts would be recognised and there would be no supposed clash between democracy and expertise.  It is vital, in the political era in which we currently live, that we find a way to defend expertise against the predations of the kind of democracy we see in the United States.

LRG: Your program of ‘elective modernism’ is not precisely popular amongst STS crowds these days, but a quick Google search shows that it and your post-truth paper have received plenty of attention and interest outside STS. Any thoughts on why elective modernism and the SEE (Studies of Expetise and Experience) program have failed to gain traction in the field of STS? Are there still possibilities of dialogue, or is the SEE position incompatible with STS (with the understanding, of course, that STS is quite a heterogeneous field)?

I used to be President of 4S and, in 1997, was a recipient of its Bernal award. Nowadays I have to search hard to find anything that interests me in the activities of 4S while the work that came out of Third Wave is being enormously successful across a range of areas – just look at the impact of the analysis of expertise – so I don’t search as hard as I might.  Nowadays, 4S seems to me to be essentially a political organisation not a scientific organisation. For me, the agenda has always started with the questions posed by the philosophy of science and the sociology of knowledge – what is knowledge and how does it work? I also cannot work out what 3S thinks it stands for these days. I think scientific disciplines need to move on – discover new things and invent new ways of looking at the world, hard as it is to accomplish these things. But what I seem to see is many STSers taking the easy option of striking the right kind of political pose and thinking the job has been done. Who knows where these organisations will go but, as of now, the powerful people seem to be leading them away from being the novelty-producing scientific organisations they once were.  I suppose I’ll continue to try to combat this tendency but a long time ago I opted to surrender all power other than that of the word-processor.  

* Luis Reyes-Galindo is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department for Science and Technology Policy (DPCT), State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and Honorary Research Fellow, Cardiff University.

Written works cited

Collins HM Evans R and Weinel M. (2017). STS as science or politics? Social Studies of Science, 47(4): 580-586.

Lynch, M (2017). STS, symmetry and post-truth. Social Studies of Science, 47(4): 593-599

Sismondo, S (2017a). Post-truth? Social Studies of Science, 47(1): 3-6.

Sismondo, S (2017b). Casting a wider net: A reply to Collins, Evans and Weinel. Social Studies of Science, 47(4): 587-592.

Online works cited

Jasanoff S (2017). Perspective: Back from the Brink: Truth and Trust in the Public Sphere. Issues in Science and Technology, Volume 33 Issue 4, Summer 2017. URL: http://issues.org/33-4/perspective-back-from-the-brink-truth-and-trust-in-the-public-sphere/

Monteiro M. (2017). Science, politics and (post-)truth. Transmissions: an SSS companion blog. Published September 8, 2017. URL: http://sites.library.queensu.ca/transmissions/science-politics-and-post-truth/

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