Commentary on "Captives of controversy"

Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 249-255

Collins, "Captives and victims" (a comment on Scott et al., "Captives of controversy").

Martin et al., "Who's a captive? Who's a victim?"


See also Brian Martin, "Captivity and commitment", 1998 

These documents are located on Brian Martin's website

Go to Brian Martin's publications on controversies

Captives and Victims:

Comment on Scott, Richards, and Martin

H. M. Collins
University of Bath

pdf of published comment

Scott, Richards, and Martin (1990; SRM) are almost entirely right in their description of the dilemma in which analysts of scientific controversies find themselves. In particular, they are right in saying that the "neutral" analyst will be thought of by participants as being on the side of the underdog. Thus however neutral the analyst intends to be, the work will always be drawn into the debate. Only SRM's conclusion -- that attempting to be neutral is pointless -- is wrong. The argument needs to be set in context; the problem they describe is a dilemma of the social sciences as a whole, not just the sociology of scientific knowledge.

It is a commonplace among sociologists that attempts at neutral analysis are seen as subversive by dominant ideologies. For example, it is in the interest of states to minimize and disguise social and economic problems. Sociologists who suggest -- through the most neutrally intentioned research -- that things are worse than they appear, are branded as ideologically motivated subversives. This is what gives teeth to the idea that sociology is a critical discipline. The dominant ideology's tactic is easily understood. It is a piece of "labeling." The effect is to reduce the legitimacy and potency of the research as well as the discipline as a whole. For sociologists to accept the label voluntarily is for them to reduce the legitimacy of their own work. I cannot believe that SRM would want this if the topics were poverty and unemployment rather than the nature of parapsychology or vitamin C. This, then, is to set SRM's remarks in a wider political context, but there is also the matter of the logic of the social sciences.

Though this may seem a heretical statement for a sociologist of scientific knowledge, we need to distinguish between the politics and the methodology of our work. That is, while as analysts we can understand that all science is in a broad sense "political," as researchers we need to keep this knowledge in a separate compartment. Just as, as analysts, we would not use our findings to prescribe the proper methodology for research on, say, gravity waves, we should not allow our analytical sensitivities to affect our own research in inappropriate ways. We need, then, to distinguish between how we do our work and its impact. 

Neutrality is a methodological prescription. One may try to be methodologically neutral while accepting that one's work will have an asymmetrical impact on the world. If you think that the impact will be bad, you may well pull out of the research. For example, natural scientists have pulled out of research on nuclear weapons because they fear its consequences, even though, as far as they were concerned, the consequences did not affect the way they did their research. To turn to sociology of science, the research on parapsychology gives comfort to the parapsychologists -- something that does not, as it happens, concern me -- but I do fear that the same research may be used to legitimize the claims of charlatans; this is something that does worry me. The effects and the worries are, however, not related to the methodology of the studies. 

SRM are wrong to conflate Mulkay, Potter, and Yearley's (1983) criticism of Collins and Pinch's work with this kind of unintended consequence. Mulkay, Potter, and Yearley claimed that our research was not methodologically neutral. We were taken over, they say, by the parapsychologists' language and ideology, and therefore the research was flawed in its execution. This is not a matter of labeling, nor is it a matter of asymmetry of use recognized post hoc; it is a straightforward accusation of methodological bias that can be straightforwardly shown to be wrong (Collins and Pinch 1983, 106-7). It is worth noting that it is possible to mount a defense against criticism such as that of Mulkay, Potter, and Yearley, whereas it is impossible to mount a defense against the way that one's work is used -- except with the kind of despairing cri de coeur to which SRM refer (Collins and Pinch 1979, 263).

As sociologists of scientific knowledge, we are inclined to believe that all scientific research, whether it is controversial or not, is related to its social and political context. But this is a high-level analyst's claim, it is not a methodological prescription. What is more, as critics, we can see the asymmetrical effects of much scientific research, but this again is post hoc analysis rather than methodological critique. To conflate these high-level claims with methodological bias -- that is, to leave no room for methodological neutrality -- is to make a mistake about the logic of the social sciences while accepting the politics of the dominant ideology of science.


Collins, H. M., and T. J. Pinch. 1979. The construction of the paranormal: Nothing unscientific is happening. In Sociological Review Monograph No. 27: On the margins of science: The social construction of rejected knowledge, edited by Roy Wallis, 237-70. Keele: University of Keele.

------. 1983. Reconstructing the paranormal. In Science observed: Perspectives on the social study of science edited by K. Knorr and M. J. Mulkay, l06-7. London: Sage.

Mulkay, Michael, Jonathan Potter, and Steven Yearley. 1983. Why an analysis of scientific discourse is needed. In Science observed: Perspectives on the social study of science edited by K. Knorr and M. J. Mulkay, 171-203. London: Sage.

Scott, P., E. Richards, and B. Martin, 1990. Captives of controversy: The myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies. Science, Technology, & Human Values 15:474-94.


Who's a Captive? Who's a Victim? Response to Collins' Method Talk

Brian Martin
Evelleen Richards
Pam Scott

University of Wollongong

pdf of published letter

We are grateful to Harry Collins for clarifying his own assumptions about science and social science. He argues for neutrality as a methodological prescription. It was precisely our aim to argue against this.

We begin here by specifying three difficulties with the prescription of methodological neutrality for controversy studies: interaction with the debate, selection and deployment of methods, and social influences on methods. The latter two difficulties apply also to methods used in natural science, as we will illustrate. Then we turn to Collins's claims about the greater legitimacy to be gained from an appearance of methodological neutrality.

In the first place, we have argued that one's method affects one's interactions with partisans in the controversy. Adopting a stance of symmetry means that it is much easier to obtain information -- including documents, interviews, and insider perspectives -- from opponents of orthodoxy. A preplanned "symmetrical" approach of interviewing people on both sides may not work in practice because of suspicions, polarization, or the impact of prior researchers (Scott, Richards, and Martin 1990).

In our view, the possibility of methodological neutrality in social studies of scientific controversies should be just as much a matter for empirical study as the alleged neutral method of the natural sciences. We studied it in our cases of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, fluoridation, and vitamin C and cancer and found that the methodological prescription of neutral social analysis was as impossible in practice as the prescribed neutrality of the scientist's method. Since the publication of our article, another empirical "self-study" that supports our conclusions has been drawn to our attention (Kroll-Smith and Couch 1990).

Second, a researcher takes a position by selecting a method from the range of possible methods. For social analysts, a prescription of symmetry is a choice of method. Collins agrees with us that a symmetrical analysis of a scientific controversy usually helps the side with less scientific credibility. Knowing this, there can be no neutrality in selecting a method.

We have no wish to appear to be teaching one of the pioneers of the empirical program of relativism his business, but the same applies in the natural sciences. For example, in the debate over the effect of exhausts from supersonic transport aircraft on stratospheric ozone, different scientists chose different methods of approaching the problem and modeling the processes in ways that helped to achieve the sorts of conclusions they seemed to be looking for (Martin 1979).

A third difficulty with the prescription of methodological neutrality is the existence of numerous social influences on the development, application, and choice of methods. Most obviously, only some methods receive research funding: the funders desire certain approaches because of the answers they are likely to give. For example, much more funding is available for certain types of studies of the operation of pesticides because of funding by pesticide companies. Heavy economic investments in particular types of telescopes or particle accelerators strongly influence research methods (Pinch 1986). In the social sciences, in many cases, studies that mimic the alleged method of the natural sciences are preferentially given funding over other approaches.

There are also moral, economic, and political constraints on choice of method in both the natural and social sciences. It is not considered acceptable to explode a nuclear weapon in a city as a means of studying the biological effects. And, as the recent debate in the pages of Science, Technology, & Human Values attests, the method employed by Epstein (1990) in his social investigation of peer review and journal publication raised ethical and other professional dilemmas for social scientists.

Choice and deployment of method are also routinely affected by professional advancement, including jobs, promotions, grants, and status. It is a commonplace observation that many scientists have a stake in a particular method, whether it is radiocarbon dating or Markov chains. These scientists in effect represent methods in search of problems. The resulting deployments of method cannot be considered neutral. These career influences apply to the choice of methods by controversy analysts, too -- to ourselves and (dare we say it?) to Collins -- and to the ways in which they deploy and rhetorically defend them.

Collins says that "as analysts, we would not use our findings to prescribe the proper methodology for research on, say, gravity waves." Why not? Social analysis sometimes may provide insights into scientific method not easily perceived by practitioners. Richards has drawn on her study of the vitamin C and cancer controversy to make recommendations concerning the use of randomized controlled clinical trials (Richards forthcoming). Why is this "inappropriate"?

Collins draws a distinction between doing research (which is allegedly neutral) and its impact (which is not). This methodological prescription for social scientists looks remarkably like the traditional positivist picture of scientific method. As Collins notes, scientists can pull out of nuclear weapons research, but we argue that this does not mean "the way they did their research" is unaffected by social forces. It is precisely because governments fund research with the goal of producing nuclear weapons for specific military purposes that nuclear scientists are in a position to do this research in the first place. Where is the neutral method? From a sociological point of view, the claim of methodological neutrality might be better understood as a convenient myth that serves rhetorical and political purposes in dissociating the researcher from the socially contentious products of the research (Schuster and Yeo 1986). Should sociologically informed social scientists perpetuate the very mythology that their investigations consistently expose?

This brings us to Collins's argument that social scientists should claim to be methodologically neutral in order to give themselves greater legitimacy on important social issues such as poverty and unemployment. We believe the value of an appearance of neutrality cannot be assumed; rather, it too is something that warrants empirical study. Certainly, it is not automatically an advantage. It can be argued that the major impact in areas such as poverty, war, environment, and repression often comes from committed scholarship or, more likely, activism, rather than ostensibly neutral scholarship.

We disagree with Collins's claim that an appearance of neutrality is invariably a good way to undermine dominant ideologies. Since the majority of intellectuals both support dominant ideologies and trade on the claim of neutrality, it may be more subversive to challenge the possibility of neutrality. Again, this should be a matter for empirical study. Might it be the case that, for a social scientist, an appearance of neutrality adds legitimacy principally in the eyes of mainstream peers?

Collins says that stating connections between scientific knowledge and its social context "is a high-level, analyst's claim." To the contrary. It is Collins who makes a high-level claim with his assertions about methodological neutrality. Our case studies dealing with issues having serious policy implications show that the connections between knowledge and context are very down to earth indeed. 

We are less worried that our work may be used to "legitimize the claims of charlatans" (after all, as Collins surely would agree, the label of charlatan is a socially negotiated one) than we are by Collins's rigid segregation of method from politics. His comments are a worrying reflection on some work in the sociology of scientific knowledge that, because of its reluctance to engage with policy issues, is in danger of becoming only an intellectual exercise for armchair philosophers.


Epstein, William. 1990. Confirmational response bias among social work journals. Science, Technology, & Human Values 15:9-38.

Kroll-Smith, J. Stephen, and Stephen R. Couch. 1990. Sociological knowledge and the public at risk: A "self-study" of sociology, technological hazards and moral dilemmas. Sociological Practice Review 1(2): 120-7.

Martin, Brian. 1979. The bias of science. Canberra: Society for Social Responsibility in Science.

Pinch, Trevor. 1986. Confronting nature: The sociology of solar-neutrino detection. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Richards, Evelleen. Forthcoming [1991]. Vitamin C and cancer: Medicine or politics? London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's.

Schuster, John A., and Richard Yeo., eds. 1986. The politics and rhetoric of scientific method. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Scott, Pam, Evelleen Richards, and Brian Martin. 1990. Captives of controversy: The myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies. Science, Technology, & Human Values 15:474-94.