Collins, Harry 1943- (H.M. Collins, Harry M. Collins)

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Collins, Harry 1943- (H.M. Collins, Harry M. Collins)


Born June 13, 1943.


Office—School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Glamorgan Bldg., King Edward VII Ave., Cardiff CF10 3WT, Wales. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer and sociologist. Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, professor of sociology, director of Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science (KES). University of California at San Diego, visiting professor, 1993; Cambridge University, affiliated research scholar, 1999—; Cornell University, visiting research fellow, 2001; Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany, visiting research fellow, 2002; California Institute of Technology, Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor of History, 2003.


Book of the Year, Emory and Henry College, 1994-95, for The Golem: What You Should Know about Science; Robert K. Merton Book Prize, American Sociological Association, 1995, for The Golem; J.D. Bernal Award, Society for Social Studies of Science, 1997, for contributions to the social studies of science.


(With Trevor J. Pinch) Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science, Routledge and Kegan Paul (Boston, MA), 1982.

(Editor) Sociology of Scientific Knowledge: A Source Book, Bath University Press (Bath, England), 1982.

Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, Sage Publications (Beverly Hills, CA), 1985.

Artificial Experts: Social Knowledge and Intelligent Machines, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1990.

(With Trevor J. Pinch) The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1993.

(With Trevor J. Pinch) The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(With Martin Kusch) The Shape of Actions: What Humans and Machines Can Do, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.

(Editor, with Jay A. Labinger) The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.

Gravity's Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2004.

(With Trevor Pinch) Dr. Golem: How to Think about Medicine, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2005.

(With Robert Evans) Rethinking Expertise, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2007.

Author of numerous book chapters and articles for scholarly journals, including American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology.


Known for his work in the sociology of science, Harry Collins has been a participant in the "science wars," a dispute between scientists and the sociologists who, like Collins, have chosen to study the process by which scientists reach their conclusions. He is regarded by many as one of the most radical critics of natural science and scientific expertise. On the other hand, he is also a defender of science and the difficulties it faces in coming up with answers and "proofs." Collins has written several books about the process of scientific investigations and the validity of research findings, including The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, Gravity's Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves, and Dr. Golem: How to Think about Medicine.

The term "science wars" arose when many prominent scientists attacked work done by sociologists, philosophers, and others who focused their studies on the "process" of science in terms of social analysis. Collins, who teaches at Cardiff University in Wales, embraces the notion of social construction of science. In other words, he favors the idea that in many cases scientists do less discovering about what is in nature than imposing their own conventional ideas on it. According to Stephan Fuchs, writing in Sociological Inquiry, Collins and others believe "that science does not differ in kind from other social practices and does not enjoy any special cognitive or methodological privileges. Scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Science is but one social and cultural form of life amongst others and does not provide the rest of our culture with rational and transcendental foundations."

On the Cardiff University Web site, Collins said that some of his work has been drawn into the "science wars" debate and sometimes attacked with gusto. "The reason for these less temperate attacks seems to be the, accurate, perception that books such as The Golem make science seem less infallible," wrote Collins. "But it seems to me that science endangers itself by promising too much. Science and technology … are evidently fallible and its continual failures are always on display. To promise revelation is to risk disillusion and an anti-science reaction."

In his 1985 book Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, Collins examines the validity of the experimental method through case studies surrounding a controversy over gravity wave detection experiments and examples of replication experiments concerning paranormal effects. In the book, Collins maintains, "It can never be clear whether a second experiment has been done sufficiently well to count as a check on the results of the first. Some further test is needed to test the quality of the experiment—and so forth." Calling the book "required reading for historians of science concerned with developments in the sociology of scientific knowledge," John A. Schuster, writing in Isis, noted that "Harry Collins is one of the genuine innovators of the sociology of scientific knowledge, and so it is most welcome to see a large part of his earlier work gathered together, partially revised and largely reorganized, in the present volume."

Collins is also the author with Trevor J. Pinch of three books that use the analogy of the golem to describe science. A Jewish mythological creature, the golem is a magical giant that grows and has the potential to both help people and be innocently dangerous because of its clumsiness. In the first book, The Golem, the authors focus on the controversial nature of the scientific method. Since science is practiced by human beings, they suggest, it is fallible and marked at times by ambition and corruption. As a result, science is not always the last word on a subject in terms of the "facts" it produces, since much depends on data collection processes and the often-subjective interpretation of data. "On the whole, this work provides informative insights into the workings of science," wrote J. Singh in Science Books & Films. In Contemporary Sociology, Michael Lynch felt that "having read the book's clear, simple descriptions of seven episodes of scientific controversy, I must admit that I enjoyed it very much and recommend it highly."

In The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology, Collins and Pinch turn their attention to issues surrounding technology. They discuss what "expertise" really is and how good or successful a technology actually is compared to what is advertised, as in their example of the accuracy of the "Patriot" missiles used in the first Gulf War between the United States and Iraq. Other case studies include the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger in the 1980s. Writing in Nature, Barry Barnes commended the book as being the "clearest and simplest" explanation available concerning "‘what you should know about technology.’" He acknowledged that Collins and his coauthor are "widely regarded as among the most radical critics of natural science and scientific expertise," but added that he views the book as "a powerful defense of experts and expertise."

Working again with Pinch, Collins examines the medical establishment in Dr. Golem. Here, as Canadian Journal of Sociology reviewer William C. Cockerham noted, "The authors view medicine as a body of expertise, rather than a combination of logic and fact." Just like other "repairmen," doctors sometimes are successful and sometimes not. However, unlike a plumber, for example, when doctors are unsuccessful the results are much more serious. Though an imperfect science, medicine is, in the opinion of the authors, yet a vital one. Collins and his coauthor look at topics from fake doctors to the placebo effect and alternative medicine. Cockerham felt that "the theme of the book is both interesting and promising, but the topics selected provide only a snapshot of the issues addressed." Booklist contributor Donna Chavez, however, thought the authors "present the kind of information that is helpful when thinking about the issue [of proper medical care]." Similar praise came from Lancet contributor Noah Raizman, who found that Collins and Pinch "carefully tease out key conflicts in the way that medical knowledge is constructed and used and endeavour to show how necessarily complicated medical decision-making must be."

In 2001, Collins coedited a book with Jay A. Labinger that incorporates both sides of the "science wars" debate. In The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, the editors present a series of essays and responses concerning science and the sociological study of science. Written mostly by physicists and sociologists, the writings focus on various core issues involving scientific claims and their reliability, integrity, and authority. Writing in Nature, John Ziman called the book "muddled, muddling," and full of "rambling conversation." Jan Golinski noted in American Scientist that the book "would be a dull one if there were not still some significant disagreements" that are discussed. However, Peter D. Smith, writing in Times Literary Supplement, noted: "The book offers a fascinating insight into the arguments on both sides." In New Scientist, Robert Matthews praised the idea that the "two sides are moving towards more constructive exchanges." He thought that "the time has come for scientists and non-scientists alike to adopt a more sophisticated approach to the scientific process. Reading this book is the place to start."

Collins, who has studied gravitational waves for several decades as a layman, brought this knowledge to his 2004 work, Gravity's Shadow, "a first-class study of how contemporary experimental physics operates," according to American Scientist critic Lee Smolin. Over the course of three decades, Collins was able to place himself inside groups of gravitational wave researchers, to interview prominent scientists in the field, and to attend their meetings and conferences. Archives were put at his disposal, and in the end, he was able to boast knowledge of his subject every bit as keen as practicing scientists in the field. In a surprising experiment, Collins asked one well-known gravitational wave scientist to answer seven fundamental questions about the physics of gravitational waves; Collins himself also answered the same questions. Then, when submitted to a panel of judges made up of gravitational-wave researchers, the scientists were unable to, as Slate Web site writer Jon Lackman noted, "tell the impostor from one of their own." As Lackman further noted, "Collins argues that he is therefore as qualified as anyone to discuss this field, even though he can't conduct experiments in it." Smolin went on to observe, "Collins's book is long and full of detail, but it is an entirely rewarding read." Collins's narrative follows the search for gravitational waves from the experiments of Joe Weber, which led to Weber's 1969 declaration that he had actually detected such waves, hitherto theoretically believed in, but so weak as to be extremely difficult to observe. Weber's experiments, though, were unable to be reproduced, leading to something of a scientific scandal and tragedy. After Weber, the hunt for such waves was taken up by larger groups, including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project, a huge, almost industrial-sized effort as compared to Weber's small-scale experiments. Smolin concluded: "This is a book that everyone who cares about the future of science should read."



American Journal of Sociology, May, 2007, Kathy Charmaz, review of Dr. Golem: How to Think about Medicine, p. 1941.

American Scientist, January-February, 2002, Jan Golinski, review of The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, pp. 72-74; September 1, 2005, Lee Smolin, "Matters of Gravity," p. 454.

Booklist, November 1, 2005, Donna Chavez, review of Dr. Golem, p. 10.

British Journal for the History of Science, December, 1991, Geoffrey Tweedale, review of Artificial Experts: Social Knowledge and Intelligent Machines, pp. 481-482.

Canadian Journal of Sociology, summer, 2007, William C. Cockerham, review of Dr. Golem; December, 2006, Jon Agar, review of Gravity's Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves, p. 624; September, 2007, Neil Pemberton, review of Dr. Golem, p. 464.

Choice, June, 1999, M. Wooddell, review of The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology, p. 1808; January, 2002, P.D. Skiff, review of The One Culture?, p. 900; May, 2005, J. Richard, review of Gravity's Shadow, p. 1627; March, 2006, R.M. Mulluner, review of Dr. Golem, p. 1255.

Contemporary Sociology, January, 1995, Michael Lynch, review of The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, pp. 114-115; May, 2000, Patrik Aspers, review of The Shape of Actions: What Humans and Machines Can Do, pp. 563-564; January, 2006, Alex Preda, review of Gravity's Shadow, p. 87.

Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, spring, 2005, Alexei Kojevnikov, review of Gravity's Shadow.

Isis, September, 1989, John A. Schuster, review of Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, pp. 493-496; September, 2005, Edward Jones-Imhotep, review of Gravity's Shadow, p. 458; December, 2006, Sergio Sismondo, review of Dr. Golem, p. 807.

Journal of the American Medical Association, April 5, 2006, Omar A. Khan, review of Dr. Golem, p. 1588.

Lancet, February 11, 2006, Noah Raizman, "An Imperfect Science," p. 466.

Library Journal, June 1, 1991, Thom Gillespie, review of Artificial Experts, p. 182.

London Review of Books, October 20, 2005, Roger Cooter, review of Dr. Golem, p. 15.

Nature, November 5, 1998, Barry Barnes, review of The Golem at Large, pp. 39-40; April 8, 1999, Bruce Mazlish, review of The Shape of Actions, pp. 478-479; September 27, 2001, John Ziman, review of The One Culture?, pp. 359-360; February 17, 2005, "In Search of Weighty Matters," p. 685; January 12, 2006, W.F. Bynum, review of Dr. Golem, p. 140; November 15, 2007, "Human Distilleries," p. 350.

New Scientist, October 6, 2001, Robert Matthews, review of The One Culture?, p. 50.

Philosophy of Science, October, 2005, Allan Franklin, review of Gravity's Shadow, p. 647.

Physics Today, December, 2005, Ronald W.P. Drever, review of Gravity's Shadow, p. 62.

Science, February 11, 1994, Ullica Segerstrale, review of The Golem, pp. 837-838; April 6, 2007, "Placebo or Protector?," p. 55.

Science Books & Films, December, 1993, J. Singh, review of The Golem, p. 268.

Science Education, March, 2007, Troy D. Sadler, review of Dr. Golem, p. 339.

Sociological Inquiry, winter, 1992, Stephan Fuchs, review of Artificial Experts, pp. 119-121.

Sociological Review, May, 1999, Tiago Moreira, review of The Golem at Large, pp. 381-383.

Times Higher Education Supplement, March 4, 2005, "Rivals on the Trail of Elusive Ripples," p. 30.

Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 2002, Peter D. Smith, review of The One Culture?, p. 33.


Cardiff University Web site, (March 31, 2003), Harry Collins, "The Science Wars"; (January 31, 2008), "Professor Harry Collins."

Slate, (October 5, 2006), Jon Lackman, "The Amateur's Revenge: Posing as a Physicist—and Getting away with It."

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Collins, Harry 1943- (H.M. Collins, Harry M. Collins)

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