The Hay Festival is one of the largest literary festivals in the world, and takes place every year at Hay-on-Wye, which is just on the correct side of the English-Welsh border. Amongst the literary luminaries who will flock to Hay for ten days are a few academics from Cardiff University, who present a series of lectures and/or discussions selected from across a variety of disciplines. This year that includes Harry Collins and myself.
Collins has devoted his career to studying the sociology of scientific knowledge, which has included scrutiny of our own School’s research into gravitational-wave physics, as an ideal example of an emerging and sometimes controversial scientific field, as well as pioneering work on what it means to be a scientific expert.
That is the topic of his latest short book. He confronts the growing phenomenon of the general public assuming that they have the expertise to pronounce judgement on scientific controversies. From the MMR scandal in ’90s, in which reporters “balanced” the views of medical experts against the anecdotal “evidence” of concerned parents, through to 2009’s Climategate, where people thought they had been shown scientists with their pants down. Collins distinguishes between real and contrived scientific controversies, and tries to teach us how we can do the same.
Can we spot a real scientific controversy? Can we identify the real scientific experts, without being experts ourselves? And does this book really tell us how to do it? Those are some of the questions I will be discussing with Harry Collins on Friday.
The event is at 7.45pm on Friday 23rd May – it seems that we’re the warm-up act for Billy Bragg at 9.30.