To introduce the epistemological stance that The Seven Sexes is based off of, Collins quotes McHugh’s On the Failure of Positivism, claiming “Truth is conceivable only as a socially organized upshot of contingent courses of linguistic, conceptual and social behavior” (McHugh 329). This statement nicely sets up Collins’s argument on the transfer of scientific knowledge and the concept of scientific success, particularly in attempts to replicate experiments and circumstances that yielded results. He introduces the ‘ship in a bottle’ metaphor, in which ships (knowledge) are within bottles (validity) and perceptions are built on the ships already formed out of many sticks and inside bottles, after which it’s nearly impossible to get them out. “Ships” are being built slowly in the scientific community all the time, though Collins takes a more relativistic approach to these scientific developments than most.
The two plausible models Collins presents for the transfer of scientific knowledge are the algorithmical model and the enculturational model. The algorithmical model takes the approach that any scientific experiment can be reduced to a distinct and precise series of instructions that, when followed scrupulously, can produce the exact results of another’s experiment. Or, in other words, when presented with an ‘algorithm,’ any scientific results can be reproduced once the algorithm is nailed down and airtight. Collins also makes the point that the use of this approach strongly encourages competitiveness in the scientific community which, as a whole, retards scientific discovery, since the factors of the ‘algorithm’ regarding high-profile experiments is highly coveted.
The second model Collins presents is the enculturational model. Under this model, the concept of producing an exact copy of an experiment is not plausible. He states that there’s a cultural limitation on the variables that can be accounted for per experiment, and therefore two copies of an experiment can never be exactly the same (and hence cannot follow the same algorithm). It is here that he introduces the concept of the seven sexes, which is taken from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim is abducted by Tralfamadorians. The alien race states matter-of-factly to Billy that there are, in fact, seven sexes necessary for human reproduction, which directly contradicts our belief that the only relevant sexes in this circumstance are male and female. From Vonnegut’s concept, Collins asserts that this actually follows the enculturational model of scientific knowledge. There’s no way for us to know whether or not we know the exact algorithm for sexual reproduction at all, but rather that there is an infinity of possible algorithms and there’s no way of knowing the correct one.
Collins concludes that the enculturational model seems much more sensible than the algorithmical after considering that the transfer of scientific knowledge necessitates the transfer of a culture in order to legitimate the parameters of experimental control. The key to this concept is that the scientists involved don’t even necessarily know or comprehend that they’re fulfilling certain parameters necessary for successful replicated scientific experimentation, but they naturally fulfill the role only through the transfer of culture. It has been proven that in scientific replication it’s much more common for predecessors to have success in yielding valid results when they have spent direct time in the original lab and with the original scientists, while they will find fewer valid results if reading about an experiment or obtaining information through a middle-man. Neither party, scientist nor observer, is aware of this transfer of knowledge.
Gravitational radiation is an excellent example of this phenomena. This is a particularly interesting study because there is so little solid information (very few ships in bottles) surrounding this research. This is one of the circumstances in which there’s a lot of competition among scientists to yield valid results the fastest, and because of it there’s very little exact reproduction of any experiment (since it has simply already been done). Instead, scientists choose to replicate an experiment with minor modifications in their field of expertise, such as minor improvements in electronics where everything else remains ‘the same.’ Now relating this to the enculturational model, Collins argues that the only way for a guarantee of transfer of scientific knowledge to take place is through production of results that are acceptable to the scientific community. This is difficult to apply to the concept of gravity waves because there is no established criteria for what constitutes a good gravity wave detector. This can follow in more established fields as well because scientists who fail to detect gravity waves can simply deny their existence.
Similarly, it’s difficult to establish a “good experiment” using purely scientific terms and procedures, since there is an infinite number of criteria that may or may not feed into the results. To be accepted in the scientific community as yielding truthful or legitimate results, there’s a major list non-scientific points of judgement. Beyond following the scientific method and publishing honest results, Collins found that scientists judged others based on many factors. These included personal intelligence, reputation, style, academic standing, size and prestige of the university at hand and nationality. For example, one scientist denied the results of the original gravity waves experiment because he couldn’t pick apart the procedure as carefully as he would have liked. This shows that there’s not a defined set of scientific criteria that can guarantee experimental validity.
Here Collins introduces his fifth point, which includes a series of interviews from scientists to prove a lack of consensus on scientific criteria. This shows that science cannot be intentionally learned or agreed upon without the transfer of scientific knowledge discussed earlier in the text. He goes on to discuss what constitutes a scientific phenomenon, defining it as a supposed set of circumstances, locations, times, events and conceptual categories that culminate in a specific manifestation of the phenomena. Because there are so many factors, it is the specific pattern of inclusion and exclusion of the variables that constitutes a successful or pertinent replication or continuation of the experiment. Collins then includes the very helpful example of measuring heat. There are multiple ways to do this, which implies some of the characteristics of heat, though when measuring with a thermometer it’s crucial to leave it in the substance for more than half a second to allow the heat to transfer. This information is extremely important for a valid replication of the measurement of heat, though it is not implicitly in the definition of a measurement of heat and isn’t always included as criteria. If an experiment in which the thermometer was only exposed to the heat for a millisecond was considered valid, the very properties of heat as we conceptualize it would change. This introduces the ‘inexplicably bad’ category of experiments where unexpected results are produced due to a lack of limits on this type of factor. Because of this, the concept of gravity waves is completely contingent on the determination of experimental competency in measuring them. From a relativistic perspective, there’s no true determination of the qualities of gravity waves as many experiments that yield many different results will include different factors (without a known algorithm). In this way, it is the linguistic, conceptual and social behavior that “settles the design of the ship in the bottle” (Collins 220).