Collins, Harry and Trevor Pinch. The Golem at Large: What You Should Know About Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
In each of these two volumes Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch analyze seven cases of scientific and technological controversy. They conclude that science and technology are far messier than they are usually presented; that conclusions and decisions about what is true are inevitably reached for reasons other than strict scientific proof, and indeed in many cases it is difficult to reach agreement on what would constitute proof. Central to both volumes is the concept of "experimenter's regress," which argues that it is impossible to know what the right results are until someone has decided what the right results should be, and since each following experiment is based on the conclusions reached in the experiments before, the proof of truth regresses into the distance until some point of unproven decision (faith) is reached. In the introduction to the second volume The Golem at Large, Pinch and Collins say, "As in the first volume, we have made considerable use of the notion of the 'experimenter's regress.' This shows that it is hard for a test to have an unambiguous outcome because one can never be sure whether the test has been properly conducted until one knows what the correct outcome ought to be. (2)" And later on, in another reference to experimenter's regress as it features in a dispute about the origins of oil, they put the matter more succinctly: "Experiment alone cannot settle the matter." (The Golem at Large, 87)
In volume one the authors canvas experiments that include the chemical transfer of memory; the theory of relativity; cold fusion; spontaneous generation; gravitational radiation; the sex life of the whiptail lizard (parthenongenesis); and solar neutrinos. Some experiments, such as the chemical transfer of memory, gravitational radiation and cold fusion, are discredited without being disproved according to scientific criteria. The disputes are closed, rather, by the other authoritative experts in the field who were not able to reproduce the original results. An important discussion revolves around the skill of the experimenter: if an experimental result cannot be reproduced, is that proof that the original work is flawed in some way, or does it demonstrate particular skill on the part of the experimenter, skill that is not easily transferred? In other cases, Pasteur's particularly, conviction undergirds and directs the experiment, and Pasteur continues until he achieves the "right" results (no spontaneous generation). The cases involving lizards and neutrinos illustrates the problem of "seeing" -- deciding what there is to see, and how it should be counted and thus analyzed.
In volume two the authors limn the controversies surrounding the effectiveness
of the Patriot missile; the responsibility for the Challenger explosion;
the safety of nuclear fuel tanks; the origin and location of oil; the science
of economics; the post-Chernobyl sale of spring lambs; and the testing
of potential AIDS cures.
The Patriot missile poses the problem of proof and counting again: what qualified as an effective SCUD repellant is defined and re-defined by its supporters and opponents. The review of the Challenger tragedy reviews the assignment of blame in the aftermath and reasserts the role of accepted risk and uncertainty. The chapters on oil and the economy mirror each other: Gold illustrates the problem of being an outsider with a view that can always be discredited; economics, by contrast, exemplifies such an esoteric and insider's game that no one is ever definitively wrong. The final chapters also mirror each other, exploring the interaction of scientists and lay people (farmers and people with AIDS) and how these groups do or do not communicate with each other effectively.
The purpose of these two volumes is to allow the non-scientist to observe science as it is practiced, and to allow points of view other than "science is all good" or "science is all bad" to emerge. By opening up the uncertanties and inexactitudes of traditional "hard" science Pinch and Collins intend to rescue sociology (their own field) and other fledgling and inexact fields from accusations of inaccuracy. Furthermore, their agenda is political. In The Golem they assert "[t]o change the public understanding of the political role of science and technology is the most important purpose of our book and that is why most of our chapters have revealed the inner workings of science." (The Golem, 143). They wish to highlight for the layperson how the methods of science affect and determine what we can know as truth about the world and to maintain the necessity and inevitability of risk and uncertainty.
Finally, what is the Golem? A creature of Jewish mythology, it is a
magical creature made clay, water and spells. Clumsy, powerful, sometimes
helpful, sometimes malignant, it is branded and animated by the word "truth"
(emeth) written on its forehead. Science is the golem, a dangerous, defective
and daft creature. By this metaphor, and through their analysis, Pinch
and Collins argue that "in the end...it is the scientific community ...who
brings order to this chaos, transmuting the clumsy antics of the collective
Golem Science into a neat and tidy methodological myth. There is nothing
wrong with this; the only sin is not knowing that it is always thus."(The