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Merton’s norms and the Scientific Ethos

Professor Edward Miguel discusses Merton's norms.
This Merton 1942 piece is the most influential discussion of the ethos of scientific research, what the norms and the culture of scientific researchers is, it’s been cited many thousands of times. Merton was a sociologist and he really grounds his view of what scientists do in a set of social structures in a social system, which I guess makes sense given his field. He goes through and discusses these norms and I think has a pretty interesting take on how researchers view these norms. Researchers view the norms of science not just as being good for the production of knowledge, not just being sort of efficient in some sense or instrumentally useful, but as being morally right.
There’s a sort of sense of right and wrong. Really, there’s ethics to research. Now, it was very interesting for me in reading this and sort of learning more about this area– I, in graduate school was never taught anything about the ethics of research. I never had a course on it. I think you just sort of maybe pick it up from your advisor or it’s sort of like floating in the air, but yet I think a lot of what they identify really is something that we all feel, or many of us feel. And these are the four values. There’s universalism– I’ll go through these in a sec – universalism is a core value of scientific research, communality, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.
So I’ll go through those. Universalism– the validity of a claim that’s made should not rest on who’s making it. So if I’m a powerful person and I think the world is flat it doesn’t matter, because we can objectively show scientifically that it’s round. So even if someone famous or rich or powerful says the wrong thing, science can sort of prove them wrong. Whereas in many other parts of life, the rich and the powerful really do have control over reality or what’s true or what’s said or what can be said.
There’s nothing about your status in society that should matter. And Merton makes some interesting points. When a scientific institution is embedded in a society that doesn’t have a Universalist ideal, there’s just fundamental strain or fundamental tension, that Merton argues and others have argued might actually hinder the advancement of society.
There’s also, to the extent that we think anybody can contribute to science, and not only people coming from a certain background, then again there’s a notion that equality of opportunity may be the right thing in order to advance science, right? Because everybody can make some sort of contribution. So many scholars– and Merton cites some of them and there’s a big literature on this – have made the link between democracy and scientific progress. And this is contested, but the notion is in an open society where people can debate ideas and anybody can go and try to advance knowledge, you’re actually going to have more scientific progress than in a totalitarian society. Communality.
The findings of science are meant to be common property to the scientific community. There’s a notion of a scientific community that’s very different than what a research community would look like in a private firm, again where there’s proprietary data and you’re not supposed to share what you’re learning, you’re supposed to learn it for your own ends. Secrecy is the antithesis of the norm. Again, this is Merton 70 years ago writing about what he saw as the ideal of science, but I think many people would still subscribe to these and I’ll show you evidence on that. Open communication about what you’re doing is what science is supposed to be about. Instead of communality he called it communism.
That word was used in a couple of other settings around the same time, so now people say communality.
But basically, yeah, especially in a sentence like this, yeah. But basically he draws this very sharp distinction. He’s saying something that I think a lot of researchers here at Berkeley or in the Bay Area today would sort of disagree with. But the point of Merton is in the ideal ethos of scientific research you’re not meant to develop ideas and turn them into private property. The whole idea is to contribute to scientific progress. So this whole push in research universities definitely in the US, definitely in the Bay Area, to commercialize every half-decent idea you have and launch a start-up based on it or something like that would be seen as really antithetical to the scientific ideal, actually.
And early on, he cites some work on this, and there’s some follow up work– but there was a lot of debate early on about whether that was even appropriate. Universities in the 30s and 40s, in those days they didn’t have offices trying to spin off technologies from their engineering departments. They weren’t doing that. Now they do it. Now it’s just part of the sort of money making process in a university. Anyhow, just something to think about, that the ideal, as many scientists would see it, is open sharing of information rather than trying to develop something that you then commercialize. And again, there can be very different norms for academic versus corporate researchers here.
In fact, I’ll mention some evidence that there are different norms in the next paper, the Anderson et al. Disinterestedness. Scientists should be focused on identifying the truth and not about their own advancement, not about making money. You’re supposed to report findings as they are, even if it’s not good for your career. Even if it goes against prevailing wisdom. Even if it could hurt you. Even if other people are mad at you. You’re supposed to do it. And again, this is the ideal. Of course, human beings are self-interested to some extent, but academic researchers, at least, are supposed to be a bit less self-interested than others in their motivation. So there’s actually a pretty interesting discussion here.
In Merton he says people often associate all these kinds of altruistic motives to academic researchers. They have a passion for knowledge, they want to benefit humanity, they’re selfless, and he sort of shoots down the notion that somehow academics are just morally different or better or something than other people. They just work in a social system and under a set of institutions that make it in their interest to behave that way. So anyway, as you read this bit of text, something to keep an eye on, he basically says that we don’t really have an unusual degree of moral integrity, we’re just working in a system where that sort of honesty and clarity is rewarded. The final point is organized skepticism.
So a fundamental characteristic of the ethos of a scientific researcher is that they shouldn’t take things at face value, they need to see a proof. I can’t just tell you I have proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, I need to prove it, right? I can’t just tell you I found something, I need to sort of verify it. So again, a central aspect of research is the scrutiny that we face. And in fact, Merton claims that actually compared to other realms of life, scientists, researchers, their work is subject to far more scrutiny than almost any other field.
Because anybody around the world can get your data if you make it available and try to disprove you or claim something different than you did, and that’s just part of the game. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. That is the ideal. But too often we’ve sort of departed from that ideal, and I’ll talk about an example of that later on today. And then there’s some of these great quotes about not respecting the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, you know, again, very lofty works. Meaning scientists shouldn’t restrict themselves to acceptable topics or just study what people in power think is okay. They should look critically at everything and analyze everything. And that’s really the ideal.
And I think in some ways it’s very inspiring to think of ourselves as researchers, and you guys are just getting your training now, but to think of ourselves as researchers who are part of this kind of tradition of thought. Maybe we haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but it is an ideal that we can maybe believe in, right? So that’s the notion of the attraction of these norms.
In 1942, sociologist Dr. Robert Merton articulated an ethos of science in “A Note on Science and Technology in a Democratic Order.” He argued that, although no formal scientific code exists, the values and norms of modern science can nevertheless be inferred from scientists’ common practices and widely held attitudes. Merton discussed four idealized norms: Universalism, Communality, Disinterestedness, and Organized Skepticism. Here we define and explore each of these norms:
1) Universalism – The idea that scientific claims must be held to objective and “preestablished impersonal criteria.” This value can be inferred by the scientific method or the requirement of peer review before publication in the vast majority of academic journals.
2) Communality – Merton actually calls this norm “Communism,” but scientists tend to refer instead to “communality” or “communalism” due to Communism’s political-economic connotations. The ideas, however, are similar – that the findings of science are common property to the scientific community and that scientific progress relies on open communication and sharing. We’ll discuss the Open Science movement in more detail in Week 3.
3) Disinterestedness – Science should limit the influence of bias as much as possible and should be done for the sake of science, rather than self-interest or power. Merton says that
[t]here is competition in the realm of science, competition that is intensified by the emphasis on priority as a criterion of achievement, and under competitive conditions there may well be generated incentives for eclipsing rivals by illicit means. But such impulses can find scant opportunity for expression in the field of scientific research. Cultism, informal cliques, prolific but trivial publications – these and other techniques may be used for self-aggrandizement. But, in general, spurious claims appear to be negligible and ineffective. The translation of the norm of disinterestedness into practice is effectively supported by the ultimate accountability of scientists to their compeers. The dictates of socialized sentiment and of expediency largely coincide, a situation conducive to institutional stability.
Disinterestedness can often be the most difficult norm to achieve, especially when one’s job or academic status relies on publications or citations. Many scientists believe that lack of disinterestedness is a systemic issue – one that funders, publishers, and scientists alike should work to address. Who, for example, gets to prioritize research: those who fund, implement, or publish it? How much influence does the public have in this process and how much should they have? It’s not an issue we delve much deeper into in this course, but it’s definitely an important one.
4) Organized Skepticism – The necessity of proof or verification subjects science to more scrutiny than any other field. This norm points once again to peer review and the value of reproducibility. If a study cannot be replicated, can we say that its results are robust or credible?
If you’re interested in diving deeper into Merton’s work, we recommend taking a look at the article posted in the SEE ALSO section at the bottom of this page.
As you read Merton’s essay, think about how you as a scientist use (or don’t use) these norms. And here’s a big picture question to think about: How can institutionalized processes such as peer review and publication be improved to reflect the values of the scientific ethos?
A note on the text: The original text, entitled “A Note on Science and Technology in a Democratic Order,” has been renamed five times to reflect changing values in the scientific community, and to conform to various contexts of publication. In this article, we refer to the third version, entitled “The Normative Structure of Science,” which can be found in Merton’s book The Sociology of Science.
Merton, Robert K. 1973. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press.
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