Faking it for physicists

July 6, 2006

In a "faking it" style test, a social scientist has fooled a panel of physicist judges into believing he was an experienced gravitational wave physicist.

But far from being a demonstration of good bluffing, social scientist Harry Collins of Cardiff University believes the test proves outsiders -- such as social scientists, peer reviewers or science journalists -- can gain "interactional expertise" in a subject, even if they have never studied it formally and can't actually practice it themselves.

An interview appearing in the journal Nature this week details how Collins -- who has spent more than 30 years studying the community of physicists who work on gravity waves -- answered seven questions about gravity waves set by an expert in the subject. His replies, together with those from a gravitational physicist, were sent to nine researchers in the field.

Asked to spot the real physicist, seven were unsure and two chose Collins.

"The results show that outsiders can develop a kind of expertise in a scientific field," says Collins.

Collins' research will be published this December in Studies in the History of Philosophy of Science.

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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