After two abortive attempts, are social scientists finally beginning to get a grip on the meaning and value of science? Harry Collins says yes, in his Essay 'We cannot live by scepticism alone' (Nature 458, 30–31; 2009). But although he correctly identifies the need for science to take its proper place in informing good government, he seems to do so in spite of his misapprehensions about scientists and the scientific enterprise. In an Essay loaded with sweeping statements and cherry-picked data, he presents a caricature of science that I do not recognize.
Why do social scientists find science so difficult to fathom? In my experience, most working scientists have a much better appreciation of the power — and the limitations — of the scientific method than Collins is prepared to allow. Most have a robust understanding of Karl Popper's idea of falsification, of the impact of experimental error and the need for reproducibility in generating convincing evidence for a new hypothesis. Crucially, most would never assume that their findings represent an impregnable truth, or anything other than a work in progress.
Where I might agree with Collins is that science still struggles to make its authentic voice heard on many important issues that affect society. In part, that is because some of these issues, such as climate change, are complex and attract the attention of powerful vested interests. But it is not clear what social scientists aim to contribute to solving this problem.
What is needed is a broader channel of communication between scientists and society, both directly and through the news media, so that the real nature of the scientific process and the value of its output are made more accessible to citizens and policy-makers.
This is already emerging, independently of the musings of social scientists. Much of the initiative is coming from scientists, teachers, bloggers and other science communicators, with the open-access movement providing an interesting new dimension.
Readers are welcome to comment at http://tinyurl.com/anykw6