Research Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Reaffirming the Norms of Science

Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Reaffirming the Norms of Science

This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.

By Robert Pennock

This past weekend I joined tens of thousands of others who gathered for one of the many March for Science events held across the country.  Scientists are not ordinarily given to taking to the street in political rallies, so it is a sign of the strange and worrisome time in which we find ourselves that such a march would be organized at all, let alone draw such crowds with support from major professional scientific organizations.  The placard signs that I observed that participants had made testified to the general geekiness of the crowd: “What do we want?  Evidence-based policy.  When do we want it?  After peer review.”  Another with a picture of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock said “Make American Logical Again.”  A proportion included some direct reference to the current administration, but most were indirect as part of some positive expression of the importance of science for the health and prosperity of the country; “Strong Science for a Strong America” for instance.  Many highlighted the importance of facts and truth, such as “Science for Truth, Justice and the American Way,” and “Truth Trumps Alternative Facts.”  As a philosopher of science interested in the role of values in science, I was struck, though not surprised, by the large number that expressed their sentiment in moral terms, for instance by indicating that scientific integrity itself was under attack; a representative sign said simply “Defend the Integrity of Science”.

The integrity of science depends upon norms, both epistemic and ethical, that govern its practices.  The salient norms arise from science’s central goal, which is to discover truths about the natural world.  They are embodied in the character of individual scientists whose curiosity drives scientific research.  They help structure its methods, which aim to reduce subjective biases, to better seek nature’s evidence.  They also help form science’s institutional values—the social mores that establish community expectations and maintain professional standards.  Such values are usually tacit within the culture and practices of science, but in certain circumstances, especially when they seem to be threatened, they bubble up to the surface, as they did in the signs and speeches throughout the day.  This unusual, public expression of tacit norms brought to mind the work of sociologist of science Robert Merton, who highlighted what he identified as science’s core institutional norms during another period when they were under threat.  Our current circumstances make this discussion worth revisiting today.

It was science’s institutional norms in particular that Merton highlighted in an important 1942 essay about what he called the “ethos of science”.  On the 75th anniversary of this essay, its themes are as relevant as ever.  Though most readers know this work as “The Normative Structure of Science,”  Merton’s original title—“A Note on Science and Democracy”—signals a political element that should not be forgotten.  How can science and democracy survive and flourish when their integrity is threatened?

Merton had previously adumbrated these themes in a 1938 article published in Philosophy of Science titled “Science and the Social Order.”  In that piece, he began by mentioning Max Weber’s observation that belief in the value of scientific truth is a product of definite cultures, and warned that such belief may be undermined.  He noted cases where science had been threatened from the political far left, but he was especially concerned about outright attacks from Fascists on the far right.  In both pieces, he called on scientists to hold fast to scientific values.

Merton identified four institutional norms, starting with universalism, which holds that claims to truth in science are to be judged based on impersonal evidential criteria, irrespective of a scientist’s race, religion, etc.  Nazi objections to “Jewish science” were thus anathema.

The value of disinterestedness made the point in the other direction—conclusions should be drawn on the basis of the evidence, irrespective of a scientist’s (or anyone else’s) personal interests in the outcome.  Weber had made a similar point about science education, saying that the primary task is to get students to learn to recognize “inconvenient facts”, especially ones that are inconvenient to their own party opinions.

The impersonal nature of scientific evidence means that scientific facts are public; scientists are to be credited as discoverers, but no one may own a scientific finding.  Merton called this norm ‘Communism’, putting the term in scare quotes to make it clear he did not mean it in a political sense.

He called the forth norm “organized skepticism” to refer to the scientific community’s systematic doubt regarding any claims until they could be evaluated by evidence.  Claims based on authority, whether from religious dogma, or economic or political ideology, have no place in science and must be resisted.

This is not the place to fuss about the complexities or possible weaknesses of Merton’s particular articulation and analysis of these norms.  For instance, though he recognized that they had a moral component, his interest in them as a sociologist was as norms of social control, and he had little to say about their philosophical basis.  One unintended consequence (to use a term Merton coined) of this one-sided perspective was that it fell prey to a well-intentioned critical theoretical view that took power analysis to an extreme.

Mertonian sociology was eclipsed for a time, dismissed (somewhat unfairly, I would say) as Positivistic.  The field that Merton created veered off the rails and into the wild postmodern west of social constructivism, which viewed science as just one particular narrative about the world that could claim no privileges over others.  In its extreme form, “truth” itself became a suspect word to be superseded by interpretation and power plays.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the famous Sokal Affair—a clever satire that skewered radical constructivism and hastened a collapse of the approach that was already well underway within academia.  It is ironic that this decaying view, once associated with the academic left, has been reanimated by the right.  It reemerged in the Bush administration’s dismissal of the “reality-based community” and assertion of its own power to construct what is true and is now spreading again.  One hears the undead groans of radical constructivism from one Trump surrogate who opined that there is “no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts” and that “everyone has a way of interpreting them to be truth, or not truth,” and from another’s dismissal of real facts in favor of “alternative facts.”

Blithe or crazy dismissal of reality may be amusing when it involves whose inauguration crowd was bigger, but the danger becomes clear when more is at stake.  For instance, social constructivism was the launch pad for the Intelligent Design Creationist (IDC) critical “alternative” to evolution, which by itself is a reductio argument against the view.  This is still ridiculous but now also frightening when we have a vice president and a secretary of education who have promoted creationism in the past and may do so again in their new positions of power.  (I spent my time at the rally handing out fliers to reactivate a citizen’s action group I had helped found some fifteen years ago to defend evolution education in Michigan from the efforts of Creationist advocates—including one Dick DeVos, who was then running for governor—to allow IDC into the schools.  In her education secretary confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos signaled her willingness to open that door again by using a creationist-recommended catch phrase from her husband’s campaign.)  If there are no privileged standards for truth but the privilege of power, then on what basis may we complain if they do?

Matters only get worse as more confirmed scientific theories are replaced by conspiracy theories.  As climate change is dismissed as a Chinese hoax.  As anti-vaccine fear-mongering is fueled.  As votes are discounted as fraudulent without evidence.  As immigrants are blamed for economic woes.  And as scientists are gagged from discussing with the public the findings of their publicly-funded research.

These are new versions of the same authoritarian attacks on science that spurred Merton to write.  But truth should be a non-partisan issue.  This is so even though, or perhaps especially because, empirical findings may not go the way one wants.  Truth will sometimes be inconvenient.  For our own safety and well-being, it is everyone’s long-term interest to be humble before the evidence of nature.

Why should scientists reaffirm Merton’s norms and other scientific values?  Values determine what or who is trustworthy.  Scientists care about the trustworthiness of science because satisfying their curiosity requires that evidence trump authority.  Values are what make the enterprise work and should not be thought of as foreign to science or only relevant to the humanities.  The world needs strong role models (another Mertonian concept) for the kind of integrity that this requires.  Scientists and other scholarly researchers should aspire to be such role models and not just within the academic community; they need to express those values publicly and they need to do so clearly and often.  Why?  Because it is not just science that needs such values to function effectively.  So, too, does democracy.

A widescreen shot of the March for Science in Lansing, MI.

Robert T. Pennock, Professor of History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science at Michigan State University, studies epistemic and ethical values in science and their connection to scientific methodology and practice.  His research involves both empirical and philosophical questions that relate to evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and the scientific character virtues, and he uses this work to help improve public understanding of science, to defend evolution education in the public schools, and to advance biology and responsible conduct of research curricula nationally.  His book on curiosity and the moral character of science will be published later this year by the MIT Press.


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