Basic concepts: scientific anti-norms.

A while back, I offered a basic concepts post that discussed the four norms identified by sociologist Robert K. Merton [1] as the central values defining the tribe of science. You may recall from that earlier post that the Mertonian norms of science are:

  • Universalism
  • “Communism”
  • Disinterestedness
  • Organized Skepticism

It will come as no surprise, though, that what people — even scientists — actually do often falls short of what we agree we ought to do. Merton himself noted such instances, and saw the criticisms scientists made of their peers who didn’t live up to the norms as good evidence that the tribe of science was committed to the norms. Many of the forces Merton saw pulling against the norms of science came from outside the tribe of science. However, it’s just as reasonable to ask if there isn’t a set of countervailing norms — or “anti-norms” — that come from within the tribe of science.

In this post, I consider the forces Merton saw as working in the opposite direction from the norms. In a follow-up post, I will discuss the findings of Melissa S. Anderson [2] probing how committed university faculty and Ph.D. students are to Merton’s norms and to the anti-norms — and how this commitment compares to reported behavior.

Merton prefaced his description of the norms of the tribe of science by discussing the conditions that made scientists notice their tribe and its customs in the first place:

Incipient and actual attacks upon the integrity of science have led scientists to recognize their dependence on particular types of social structure… An institution under attack must reexamine its foundations, restate its objectives, seek out its rationale. [3]

Writing this in 1942 — with World War II well under way but before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — Merton was noting that scientists felt their enterprise to be under attack from various quarters in society. This was not something that they had been used to:

Three centuries ago, when the institution of science could claim little independent warrant for social support, natural philosophers were likewise led to justify science as a means to the culturally validated ends of economic utility and the glorification of God. The pursuit of science was then no self-evident value. With the unending flow of achievement, however, the instrumental was transformed into the terminal, the means into the end. Thus fortified, the scientist came to regard himself as independent of society and to consider science a self-validating enterprise which was in society but not of it. A frontal assault on the autonomy of science was required to convert this sanguine isolationism into realistic participation in the revolutionary conflict of cultures. [4]

According to Merton, science had experienced a reasonably happy stretch of time in which society was happy enough to take science for granted — especially when science brought good things to society. By the 1940s, the situation was changing. (Merton doesn’t run through all the details of the change here — he seemed to take for granted that the audience that he was writing for knew what sorts of issues society had with science. Some of the issues are alluded to in what we’ll discuss below — and some of those issues sound remarkably like current sites of tension between science and society.)

How did outside forces pull against the norms of the tribe of science?

Recall that this norm asserts that the contributions of all the members of the tribe of science are to be taken seriously — and that the content of each claim is supposed to be more important than the personal details of the scientist making the claim.

But Merton noted that this “big tent” approach to scientific knowledge building sometimes met with a tendency toward particularism:

Ethnocentrism is not compatible with universalism. Particularly in times of international conflict, when the dominant definition of the situation is such as to emphasize national loyalties, the man of science is subjected to the conflicting imperatives of scientific universalism and of ethnocentric particularism… The man of science may be converted into a man of war — and act accordingly. [5]

If a society makes nationalism a priority, that society may well discourage its scientists from reading and communicating with, let alone collaborating with, scientists from other (enemy) nations. If your society is the best, you don’t want to valorize the achievements of scientists for other places. Indeed, part of the story the society tells itself about its excellence may directly challenge the claim that other scientists from other places are even capable of contributing anything of value. It seems likely Merton was thinking of the climate in Nazi Germany when he wrote:

Scientists may assimilate caste-standards and close their ranks to those of inferior status, irrespective of capacity or achievement. But this provokes an unstable situation. Elaborate ideologies are called forth to obscure the incompatibility of caste-mores and the institutional goal of science. Caste-inferiors must be shown to be inherently incapable of scientific work, or, at the very least, their contributions must be systematically devalued. [6]

Since the scientific method is premised on the idea that humans come equipped with sense organs and powers of reasons can be trained on the world in such as was as to discover objective facts — facts that can be displayed to other humans for their inspection — particularism here amounts to identifying some classes of humans as better equipped for scientific work than others. Embracing particularism means writing off some contributions to the scientific conversation not on the basis of their content, but on the basis of who made them.

As Merton described it, the norm of communism amounted to the idea that the knowledge built by any particular scientist belongs to the whole community of science. Scientists share their knowledge, and they build new pieces of knowledge out of the pieces others have contributed.

Secrecy is the antithesis of this norm; full and open communication its enactment. The pressure for diffusion of results is reenforced by the institutional goal of advancing the boundaries of knowledge and by the incentive of recognition which is, of course, contingent upon publication. A scientist who does not communicate his important discoveries to the scientific fraternity — thus, a Henry Cavendish — becomes the target for ambivalent responses. He is esteemed for his talent and, perhaps, for his modesty. But, institutionally considered, his modesty is seriously misplaced, in view of the moral compulsive for sharing the wealth of science. [7]

To the extent that a nation’s war effort might engage scientists in developing weapons, cracking codes, or what have you, you might imagine that this might push scientists toward secrecy rather than free communication. But if your country doesn’t demand secrecy of you, your boss still might:

The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as “private property” in a capitalistic economy. Current writings on the “frustration of science” reflect this conflict. Patents proclaim exclusive rights of use and, often, nonuse. The suppression of invention denies the rationale of scientific production and diffusion [8]

If scientists see themselves as united in the project of building a shared body of reliable knowledge about the world, then it’s not surprising that a number of scientists working in the private sector feel as though their loyalties to their employer and their loyalties to their professional community sometimes pull in different directions. The demands of the private sector to treat significant chunks of knowledge as proprietary separates scientists from their larger community.

The idea behind this norm is that scientists are not motivated to do science a solely as a means to secure personal benefit. Rather, they are working for the good of a larger project, creating a shared body of reliable knowledge about the world. The knowledge is a good in itself, at least to the scientists.

But Merton described situations in which the bona fides of the tribe of science were used in the service of non-scientific ends:

Science realizes its claims. However, its authority can be and is appropriated for interested purposes, precisely because the laity is often in no position to distinguish spurious from genuine claims to such authority. The presumably scientific pronouncements of totalitarian spokesmen on race or economy or history are for the uninstructed laity of the same order as newspaper reports of an expanding universe or wave mechanics. In both instances, they cannot be checked by the man-in-the-street and in both instances, they may run counter to common sense. If anything, the myths will seem more plausible and are certainly more comprehensible to the general public than accredited scientific theories, since they are closer to common-sense experience and to cultural bias. Partly as a result of scientific achievements, therefore, the population at large becomes susceptible to new mysticisms expressed in apparently scientific terms. The borrowed prestige of science bestows prestige on the unscientific doctrine. [9]

The success of science — the concentrated expertise of the tribe — means that those outside of it may take “scientific” claims at face value. Unable to make an independent evaluation of their credibility, lay people can easily fall prey to a wolf in scientist’s clothing, to a huckster assumed to be committed first and foremost to the facts (as scientists try to be) who is actually distorting them to look after his own ends.

Organized skepticism
Remember that this norm amounts to a commitment to examine every claim made in the scientific conversation, taking nothing on faith or authority but instead doing the work of examining whether the claim is borne out by the empirical evidence. (This is the Mertonian norm most likely to be found needlepointed on a throw pillow in Sir Karl Popper’s rumpus room.)

Merton noted, however, that the larger society is not always comfortable with scientists’ skeptical bent when it leaves the laboratory and turns its critical gaze on other features of human society:

Science which asks questions of fact, including potentialities, concerning every aspect of nature and society may come into conflict with other attitudes toward these same data which have been crystallized and often ritualized by other institutions. The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed.

As we have noted, this appears to be the source of revolts against the so-called intrusion of science into other spheres. Such resistance on the part of organized religion has become less significant as compared with that of economic and political groups. The opposition may exist quite apart from the introduction of specific scientific discoveries which appear to invalidate particular dogmas of church, economy, or state. It is rather a diffuse, frequently vague, apprehension that skepticism threatens the current distribution of power.

The most recent round of upheavals in which scientific influences are identified as antithetical to some crucial part of our culture seem to be focused on matters of religion. I find it interesting that when Merton was writing (in the early 1940s) it was political and economic doctrines that were felt to be most under attack by — and most in need of protection from — skeptical scientists who didn’t know how to clock out from their scientific mindsets.

In identifying the forces competing with the scientific norms, Merton reminds us that the tribe of science is not functioning in isolation. Scientists don’t all live and work on Science Island; they walk in our midst. And just by virtue of being embedded in a larger society (made up of many people who are not scientists), scientists have to navigate in an environment where lots of people do not share the values of the tribe of science (or at least, don’t feel the need to put these values above all others).

Scientists may thus find themselves buffeted by external forces demanding that they judge the quality of work based on who or where it came from, that they restrict the flow of scientific information, that they keep their skepticism at a polite distance from favored institutions, or that they let their “brand name” be exploited for someone’s personal gain.

In Merton’s estimation, members of the tribe of science were largely resistant to these influences from without, and they judged scientists who did not resist them as not truly committed to the tribe. This vocal support of the norms of the tribe doesn’t make the outside world go away, but it provides peer pressure from within the tribe to cling to the values that define that tribe.

In the next post, we’ll consider whether it’s the case nowadays that scientists have the same fierce commitment to Mertonian norms, and whether this commitment is sufficient to shape behavior — to turn the “ought” into “is”.

[1] Robert K. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press (1979), 267-278.

[2] Melissa S. Anderson, “Normative Orientation of University Faculty and Doctoral Students,” Science and Engineering Ethics, 2000: Vol. 6. no. 4, pp. 443 – 461.

[3] Merton, p. 267.

[4] Merton, p. 268.

[5] Merton, p. 271.

[6] Merton, p. 272.

[7] Merton, p. 274.

[8] Merton, p. 275.

[9] Merton, p. 277.

[10] Merton, pp. 277-278.

Posted in Basic concepts, Teaching and learning, Tribe of Science.


  1. [this is good]
    And see, that’s the difference between a professional philosopher of science like you, and a dilettante dabbler like me. I had simply no idea that Sir Karl had a rumpus room.

  2. Thank you for this article. I have sadly witnessed too many scientists shift their allegiance to the bastard norms of “commercial science” to have any sort of optimism about the strength of this kind of commitment, at least in my country.
    The fact is that the tiger CAN change its stripes when it’s hungry.

  3. hm. I thought you would talk about the study with the Apollo scientists in which the counter-norms were sometimes positive and necessary to science.
    (Mitroff, I. 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.)

  4. The Anderson paper (about which more in the next of these posts) discusses the Mitroff paper, so I’ll say something about those comments.
    If I can get my hands on the Mitroff paper, though, I’ll try to blog that, too!

  5. Please find a site which discusses the baneful limitations of the world dominant ideology of SCIENTISM as distinct from the use of the method of science as open ended free enquiry.
    Plus an assessment of the inevitable outcome of the objectification “culture” produced in the image of scientism and its drive to total power and control.

  6. Pingback: Basic concepts: the norms of science. | Adventures in Ethics and Science

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