The Impracticality of Scientific Norms
Withstanding the fact that science as a field of knowledge is vast and diverse, it has garnered a unified social meaning, and therefore, social presence as well. It is commonly viewed as having a collective outlook, as well as possessing stringent and objective criteria for evaluating theories, on which knowledge about our surroundings is founded and gains validity. However, once that socially established exterior is shown to be superficial and easy to circumvent, those acclaimed principles become more ambiguous and thus the actual definition of science begins to be difficult to grasp.
In 1943, an American sociologist, Robert K. Merton tried to cement four key values, or constructive norms, into the scientific ethos to consolidate all the sciences. He wished tosubstantiate the broad category of science both in academia and society. In 1974, organisational theorist Ian Mitroff challenged this and unsettled Merton’s proposed ethos by putting forward his own four “counter-norms” that questioned the accepted social role science subsumes. This essay will evaluate the merits and the shortcomings of both proposed sets of ethics, and illustrate the social aspect of science.
It is more useful to view the scientific community as we do other academic cultures, rather than separate structured methods of garnering knowledge. As a culture, science needs to operate on common goals and accepted intellectual practices, rather than functioning as a proprietor of truthful knowledge that is immune to criticism. This would inherently involve experimenting with and collaborating on different ideas and conceptual understandings within a clear set of aims. Ideally, these cultural practices could safeguard against commodification and political attacks on the integrity of the scientific field (Merton, 1942, p. 115), and also increase the practical applications of knowledge (p.163). It was this appraisal of scientific knowledge that spurred Merton (1973) to develop a systematic approach to codify and clarify all scientific investigations. By doing this, it could cultivate cooperation between the various disciplines (p. 163). Having a unified set of articulated goals and rationales stood to legitimise the entire field of inquiry, and he argued it would increase the credibility of all fields of scientific endeavour. Developing a more resilient, resourceful and cohesive community means it would operate and thrive on knowledge that is widely accepted, understood, valid and sound.
The concept of universalism or generalisability is at the core of modern day science – well, what we think of “science” as being. Universalism is one of the principles that Merton (1942) put forward as a pillar for scientific rationality, and also as one of the defining features of science. All conclusions, if scientific, should be relevant to our surroundings and therefore impartial, and not personal (p.118). Merton argued that “…objectivism precludes particularism” (p.118), so testing and striving to achieve the generalisability of a scientific premise could reduce the subjectivity of the researcher. In opposition to nationalism and particularism, Merton believed that science should transcend national borders, castes and loyalties (Merton, 1942, pp. 118,120-121). Therefore Merton placed value on universalism, because noting how well observations translate to other relevant contexts could ensure more accurate and universal results (Merton, 1973, p. 270).
However, it is naïve to think that scientific discoveries can be extricated from the personal investment of the scientists. Ian Mitroff (1974) argues this quite convincingly and vehemently. He holds that science, by its very nature, is subjective, because without a personal passion and perspective, scientists would not make such profound discoveries (p. 580). Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Merton also advocates neutrality from another socially-driven perspective: communism, which he calls the “…non-technical and extended sense of common ownership of goods” (Merton, 1942, p. 121) and the “antithesis of secrecy” (Merton, 1973, p. 274). This concept has an air of militancy to it that undermines the scientific passion and dedication of the individual as well. Although, at the core of communism, Merton postulates science as collaboration between society and the individual (Merton, 1942, p. 121; 1973, p. 274) so the professionals do not have the sole licence to scientific wisdom.
However, scientists are a part of the society and the role of researcher is superficial (Merton, 1942, p. 119), thus universalism, as well as communism, run the risk of disengaging the individual scientist and alienating them from the social context their work is situated in. This is not only a paradox of scientific knowledge, nor a specificity of the field of science in general, which is something that Merton fails to mention. All findings of research in any academic field are situated in social contexts, and thus the sharing of such knowledge is intuitive, but not mandatory.
Additionally, Merton (1942) proposed disinterestedness and organised scepticism as other scientific values, because they reinforce the objectivity that he envisages “science” as needing to be in order to be valid and sound (pp.124-126). There is little doubt that biases and over-investment in research can lead to inaccurate results, but without a modicum of these incentives, there would not be any motivation to achieve. Mitroff alternatively proposes attributes of science that acknowledge particularism and emotional commitment, rather than an absence of these traits (p. 591). For it is an inescapable reality that scientists, like other researchers, are human beings with personal beliefs and emotions endowed in their work. He emphasises the importance of recognising and validating these preconceptions and biases, in order to remain equable and transparent (p. 582). In interviews that Mitroff conducted with scientists working on the space ship ‘Apollo’, it became clear that even the “elite of the elite [scientists]” rejected the existence of an objective way of knowing (p. 587). This assertion seems blatant and rational, as the concept of “knowing” is socially defined. Thus it further agitates Merton’s view of science, and the notion that there has to be no subjectivity to maintain validity.
Furthermore, sharing and dispersing scientific knowledge is only paramount and relevant when the knowledge has been cultivated and researched by a passionate scientist who has a vested interest in their surrounding community.
This underlies Mitroff’s (1974) argument for the counter norms of Organised Dogmatism and Solitariness. If science wants to encourage cohesiveness, property rights of the intellectual material need to be given to the individual because it’s a moral necessity to value and preserve social appreciation for their hard work and passion. They also need to be held accountable and responsible for their expert contributions, whether they are later shown to be invalid or confirmed, to ensure some diligence in the specific field of knowledge (p. 592).
Balancing intellectual and personal integrity with development of society is a recurrent theme in any moral and ethical debate. Dismissing interpersonal relationships and the emotionality in science undermines the structure and power of the discipline. Strong opinions and emotional involvement are what spur on the development and commitment of individual scientists to make advancements in their understandings of the world (Mitroff, 1974, pp. 587-588). Yet, being overly emotional and committed to one idea inhibits the ability to come to an objective conclusion. It is at this juncture that we reach the inherently complex theoretical battleground with regards to defining ‘science’, and this further illustrates that there cannot be a clear-cut concept, when what constitutes it is mercurial.
Unlike what Merton thought, there are no definitive parameters or a concrete definition to encapsulate science specifically. The descriptors that Merton (1942, p. 116) put forward could be describing any academic field. Any motivation to research, in any sphere, requires a level of comfort in being able to substantiate opinions and flexibility in outlook, with a view to make a social contribution. There is no revelation in his proposal for scientific norms. In fact they are really “scientific ideals”, but as Mitroff (1974) demonstrated with his counter norms and study, by attachingdefinitions to science and scientists actually limits the capacity of science. This essentially is attempting to elevate scientific knowledge above other ways of knowing, which, given the social and human aspects of all learning, it can never achieve.
Merton, Robert K. (1942). Note on Science and Democracy, A. J. Legal & Pol. Soc., 1, 115.
Merton, Robert K. (1949). The role of applied social science in the formation of policy: a research memorandum. Philosophy of Science, 161-181.
Merton, Robert K. (1973). The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations (pp. 267-281): University of Chicago press.
Mitroff, Ian I. (1974). Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists. American Sociological Review, 39(4), 579-595. doi: 10.2307/2094423