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Jun Hui Lee Department of Chemical Engineering

H22 Philosophies of Science 1



Discuss whether Mertons norms give a realistic description of science.
Robert K. Merton (1942) enumerated the norms of science and presented the case for
the objective nature of science (Mitroff, 1974). However, many sociologists of science,
including Merton himself, acknowledge that scientists behaviour tend to deviate
significantly from the norms. Multiple explanations have been offered to account for
this non-adherence, but all of them seem to converge to the same point, that the
professionalisation of science has inevitably created incentives for scientists to depart
from Mertons norms and lean towards counter-norms (Goldman, 1987; Ben-Yehuda,
1986; Chalk, 1985; Mitroff, 1974). This paper first considers whether each norm
describes scientists actions past and present. In so doing, this paper argues that while
Mertons norms offer a realistic picture of science prior to its professionalisation, they
are prescriptive rather than descriptive when applied to modern science today.
In his earliest effort to elucidate the social structure of science, Merton suggested the
following mores which scientists ought to follow: universalism, the independence of
scientific knowledge from an individual scientists background; communism, the
common ownership of all scientific ideas, data and knowledge; disinterestedness, the
separation of research from personal ambitions; and organised scepticism, the critical
and public scrutiny of scientific work (1942).
Although Merton had intended the norms to be ethical prescriptions (1942), they have
been largely accurate in portraying scientists behaviour in the past. Long before the
Nobel Prize and the like were established, and university league tables publicised,
scientists had no other preconceived notions (except the status quo) to cloud their
judgment and were in a better position to assess works impartially, thus adhering to
the norm of universalism. As the funding required to conduct research was much less
(due to the relative simplicity of scientific problems then), early science was not
beholden to commercial interests, which facilitated the unfettered exchange of newly
minted scientific ideas, thereby observing the norm of communism. Moreover, without
financial incentives to distort their motivations, scientists could pursue their passion
for the sake of creating a communal body of reliable knowledge about the world, hence
embodying the ideals of a truly disinterested seeker after truth. Finally, organised
scepticism was especially evident throughout history as science repeatedly found itself
in conflict with other institutions, the most oft-cited example being the Galileo affair.
Jun Hui Lee Department of Chemical Engineering
H22 Philosophies of Science 2

However, the professionalisation of science in the 19
th
century radically changed its
social structure and its place in modern society. Unlike early science whose
methodology and purposes were largely private or personal (Beer & Lewis, 1963),
modern science has become increasingly intertwined with social progress. Scientists
today can no longer divorce themselves from the social realities they operate in.
Consider the norm of universalism, a multicultural meritocratic ideal [that] is achieved
very imperfectly (Ziman, 1996: p. 751). In a world where rankings and prestige make
the world of difference, it is virtually impossible for scientists to judge a piece of work
on its own merit without regard for its provenance. Even before a scientist actually
reads the journal article, he or she would have subconsciously formed some
preliminary judgment of the work based on its origin. Anecdotally speaking, a scientist
who hails from a prestigious college or has a track record in his or her area of expertise
is more likely to inspire confidence and succeed in his or her application for research
grants. This is an inherent human weakness which all scientists succumb to, through
no fault of their own. For instance, during the controversy surrounding Joseph Webers
purported detection of gravity waves in the 1970s, non-technical arguments were
offered as grounds for discrediting his work, which included the status of the university
he graduated from and even his citizenship (Collins & Pinch, 1993). The only way to
overcome such incidents is to publish all scientific works anonymously, yet scientists
have been socially conditioned in their professional training to treat anonymous works
with disdain. Either way, the norm of universalism does not stand up to scrutiny.
Similarly, the norm of communism is slowly giving way to its counter-norm solitariness,
a concept first proposed by Mitroff (1974). With the transition of academic science from
mode 1 to mode 2 (Gibbons et al, 1994), research findings which would have been
published as soon as possible by an academic scientist could now be regarded as
intellectual property, meaning that these results may be deliberately kept hidden from
the rest of the scientific fraternity on commercial grounds (Ziman, 1996). As scientific
research geared more and more towards business interests, modern science is
steadily becoming less devoted to the ethos of public knowledge (Ziman, 1996).
The norm of disinterestedness is perhaps the most unrealistic and questionable when
applied to science in this day and age. Unlike their predecessors, scientists today who
excel in their fields are showered with tangible rewards in the form of literature citations,
Jun Hui Lee Department of Chemical Engineering
H22 Philosophies of Science 3

awards, honours and better career prospects (Ziman, 1996). In addition, scientists
interpretation of scientific data, especially in controversial areas, are bound to be
affected by their personal values and beliefs, however hard they attempt to repress
them (Yearley, 1994; Ziman, 1996). For instance, Einsteins firm conviction that hidden
variables exist was shaped by his metaphysical belief that God would not play dice
(Yearley, 1994). Furthermore, the scientists own interests and ideologies are not the
only factors influencing science. First, unlike science of yesteryear, modern research
requires significant funding in cutting edge apparatus and equipment. Second, the
central problem of economics resources are limited while human wants are unlimited
is an inescapable human condition. As such, in an increasingly pragmatic society
which prioritises results over ideals, two problems arise which make it difficult for
scientists today to remain disinterested. The first is that no research take[s] place in
a power vacuum (Ziman, 1996: p. 753). Whereas scientists in the past were able to
do pure research unaffected by corporate, bureaucratic or other external forces
(Ziman, 1996), modern science is no longer isolated from socio-economic and cultural
influences, for instance in developmental biology issues concerning whether the gene
for homosexuality exists or about ethnic genetic disparities (Yearley, 1994).
Governments and corporations worldwide are funding research that serves their
vested interests and scrambling to get the most of their investment (Ziman, 1996). The
second is that science is becoming a cut-throat profession (Macfarlane & Cheng,
2008). The publish or perish imperative contributes to the rising incidence of scientific
fraud in recent times which used to be virtually unheard of in the past. Hence, the
stakes of modern science have never been higher; they go beyond the mere pursuit
of knowledge. As Ziman sums it up aptly, the notion of a truly objective disinterested
seeker after truth is incompatible with the realities of social existence (1996: p. 754).
Even the norm of organised scepticism, arguably the most definitive of the scientific
enterprise, is gradually being superseded by its anti-norm of organised dogmatism,
the notion that scientists spend the bulk of their career furthering their own most
significant theories (Mitroff, 1974). Given the career-driven nature of science, it is not
surprising to see why this is so. After investing his entire adult life to detect gravitational
radiation, it is only understandable that Weber was not receptive to the deluge of
criticism which ensued, as his status would have been undermined and his lifelong
commitment gone down the drain.
Jun Hui Lee Department of Chemical Engineering
H22 Philosophies of Science 4

In conclusion, Mertons norms give a reasonably accurate depiction of science in the
past, but fail to describe scientists behaviour realistically in the present day. The
consensus among sociologists of science is that the normative system of science is
too complex to be described by a finite list of normative principles (Anderson et al,
2010). In the first place, Mertons norms were never intended to be representative of
scientists conduct on the ground. As Ziman puts it: Indeed, norms only affirm ideals;
they do not describe realities. They function precisely to resist contrary impulses.
(2000: p.31)

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Jun Hui Lee Department of Chemical Engineering
H22 Philosophies of Science 5

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