Classics in Historiography of Science: Robert K. Merton

In this post, I will continue my discussion about central figures in the history of historiography of science. I discuss Robert K. Merton’s views on science and, following the approach in the previous classics post, I analyze those views from the perspective of current conceptions of and interests towards science. It will be interesting to note how familiar many of Merton’s views sound. However, this feeling of familiarity is also alarming. How is it possible that views developed decades – almost a century – ago still match our understanding about science?

Robert King Merton (1910–2003) was an American sociologist who studied many aspects of social life, including the social aspects of science. Merton studied with George Sarton in Harvard and has described their relationship warmly in a memoir (Merton 1985).

From Merton’s thinking about science, we can find three major categories: (I) Science from society, (II) Society of science, and (III) Society and science. By science from society, I mean those views that concern the functional dependency of science on society and the influence of external factors[1] on science in general.[2] By society of science, I mean the social organization of scientific communities and the values, goals, and interests within those communities. By science and society, I mean the set of relationships, agreements, and conflicts between science and society. These distinctions serve only analytic purposes, as it is evident that the categories affect each other. Merton himself often uses the terminology of “functional interdependence” when analyzing social institutions (Merton 1968, 75). Moreover, the categories are conceptually linked: One can analyze the influence of society on science only if one understands what it is that the society influences, and vice versa. However, the analytic distinctions are useful in the analyzes of the stratums in our current conception of science.

Science from Society

To get ourselves going, we can begin from an astonishingly simple yet powerful argument that Merton provides for the social determinants of science and against the decisive role of individual geniuses: The existence of multiple independent discoveries. These are cases where something is discovered by many scientists without the scientists having access to each other’s work. For example, many of Cavendish’s discoveries were not known after his death but those same discoveries were nevertheless made again (Merton 1961, 478). This means that the characters of an individual mind – the existence of individual geniuses – cannot explain scientific discoveries; otherwise the discoveries could not be made independently on several occasions. Moreover, while this argument excludes one explanation of scientific discoveries (i.e. the explanation in terms of individual minds), the phenomenon of multiple discoveries now requires an explanation. “It is the singletons – discoveries made only once in the history of science – that are the residual cases, requiring special explanation. Put even more sharply, [my hypothesis is] that all scientific discoveries are in principle multiples, including those that on the surface appear to be singleton.” (1961, 477).

The argument from multiple discoveries is not a novelty by Merton but has been pointed out many times before, as Merton observes (1961). However, Merton uses the argument to sell his functional sociology of science that analyzes scientific phenomena in terms of their roles in a social system. “Multiple discoveries can [–] be seen to have several and varied social functions for the system of science” (Merton 1963, 248). For example, multiple discoveries heighten the likelihood that the discovery will be promptly incorporated in current scientific knowledge and facilitate the advancement of knowledge by confirming the truth of the discovery (Merton 1963, 248).

However, more important than the function that multiple discoveries have in science is that the existence of multiple discoveries reveal the sociological roots of science, according to Merton. The phenomenon of multiple discoveries underlines that science is developed within an accumulated cultural base of knowledge and by “concerted efforts of men of science sharpening their ideas through social interaction” (1961, 472) using “methodical procedures of inquiry” (that reduce the effect of the wit of an individual scientist on the probability of discovery) (1961, 473).

An interesting question is whether Merton thought that multiple discoveries follow from social interests external to science. In other words, does the “accumulated cultural base” include interests and problems that are articulated by the society outside science. Merton points toward the importance of “external problems” in science:

“[G]iven the routine of fulfilling certain types of needs by technologic invention, a pattern which was becoming established in the seventeenth century; given the prerequisite accumulation of technical and scientific knowledge which provides the basic fund for innovation; given (in [the case of the 17th century England]) an expanding capitalistic economy; and it may then be said that necessity is the (foster) mother of invention and the grandparent of scientific advance.” (1968, 664.)

Merton focuses on one case in detail. “[The] engrossing problem of finding the longitude perhaps illustrates best the way in which practical considerations focused scientific interest upon certain fields” (1968, 468). For example, Newton’s lunar theory was a “climatic outcome of scientific concentration on this subject” (1968, 472). Scientific discoveries arise from the needs of society.

This seems to place Merton among the scholars who claim that scientific achievements stem from social structures rather than from the secrets of the nature. The appearance is deceiving. Merton explicitly dissociates himself from scholars who think that the contents or the truth of scientific theories are determined by their social context (Merton 1937). In the words of Merton:

“The circular reasoning of these doctrines is apparent. Assuming premises which involve a radical historicism entailing the denial of the possibility of valid thought, they uniformly seek to vindicate their own contentions by mere fiat: by asserting that the historical process [–] is such as to exempt the writer, or the group with which he is affiliated, from error.” (1937, 495.)

Moreover, Merton was always critical towards the internal-external debate. The picture is much more nuanced than the debate suggests, and we have to distinguish between different ways that factors on the internal-external continuum affect science. In one of his works, Merton notes:

“Though the general types of problems which confront the scientist and which in turn suggest a host of derivative problems may be suggested by extra-scientific factors [–] it is the development of these derivative problems uncovered through continuous scientific study which for the most part accounts for the foci and shifts of attention in given sciences over relatively short periods of time.” (1938, 408-409.)

Moreover, Merton argues that “[s]pecific discoveries and inventions belong to the internal history of science and are largely independent of factors other than the purely scientific” (Merton 1938, 434).

This means that even if the general interests of science have a social root, the development of science depends on solving problems that arise from the state of development of scientific knowledge itself. For example, Newton’s lunar theory was made possible by the theoretical framework of the Principia but was limited by accuracy of astronomical measurements. No matter how pressing the problem of longitude was, Newtonian treatment was not possible without a sufficient theoretical background. Later work on the problem also involved different mathematical approaches and all sorts of “empirical adjustments” were needed to get the right results from the theories. Mere social urgency did not solve complex problems.

An interlude:

To me, this underlines a clearheaded point: Science studies complex phenomena and the availability of sufficient epistemic resources to solve them is not guaranteed. Scientific development is possible only if there are problems to be solved. However, the relevant and fruitful problems cannot be chosen. Rather, the relevant problems force themselves on the scientists as they attempt to understand certain phenomena.

There are at least four components in play in these types of situations.

(I) The way the world is. One cannot use a lunar theory to calculate the longitude if there do not exist systematic connections between the relative movements of the Moon and the longitude. Or consider phrenology, the attempt to infer the mental qualities of an individual from the shape of their skull. This theory was doomed because no systematic connection exists between the shape of a skull and mental qualities.

(II) Our ideas of which phenomena are interrelated. Background knowledge in astronomy and mechanics suggested that the relative motions of the Moon and the longitude are connected. The background of phrenology was… Well, god knows where it was; certainly not in any well-tested system of knowledge like astronomy.

(III) Existing epistemic resources. One needs to have adequate techniques, instruments and theories to solve any given problem. For example, the lunar theory was developed on the basis of Newton’s theory. This component is connected to the previous one (II) but does not reduce to it. There might exist enough knowledge concerning the systematic connections between phenomena in the absence of exact resources to work out those connections. As we noted in a previous post, the mathematical treatment of phenomena during the scientific revolution exemplifies this point. Even though the prospects of using mathematical tools to describe the nature were acknowledged, successful mathematical treatment of the nature required long lasting efforts. The epistemic resources lacked behind the insight that mathematical structures and natural phenomena are interrelated.

(IV) Social needs. Scientific work is guided by problems that are relevant to the society. They motivate science and provide incentives for scientific work beyond intellectual satisfaction. However, the connection between social needs and science cannot be understood as an independent determinant. Surely, the social pressure towards science depends on what the society views as possible (II) and how the society can sustain its initial expectations during scientific work (III). In the science of our days, when projects have become incredibly expensive, the ability of the society to allocate resources to science is a serious determinant of what science can achieve. For example, building a new supercollider would be quite expensive and the possible breakthroughs it provides are evaluated against the background of the resources it requires.

This Merton-inspired analysis provides useful insights into the estimating of futures of science.

First, the estimating is complicated by the fact that we do not know how the world is exactly. We need to use our existing scientific understanding in describing the world which leads to the hard problem of futures of science: Scientific theories might change in the future, so we have no stable point from which to tell how the world will affect science.

Secondly, we have to estimate which phenomena are interrelated and provide fruitful research questions. The problem in this task resembles the hard problem. However, the second component indicates that we can reflect on the reliability and epistemic underpinnings of our knowledge. We can analyze the epistemic properties (systematicity, simplicity, historical fruitfulness etc.) of our theories and then use philosophical frameworks to analyze the significance of these properties as indicators of the stability of a theory having those properties.

Thirdly, even if have solid bases for estimating that certain findings are probable in the future, we should admit that our epistemic resources to achieve those findings might be limited. In other words, even if we know what can possibly be found (in the sense that our best theories ground the possibility), our epistemic resources might make the finding unachievable (or achievable much later than was expected). For example, we do not know exactly how powerful a collider is needed to achieve the next steps in experimental physics.

In the fourth place, we need to understand the needs of a society in order to estimate the future of science. The “funny” part is that (a) the needs themselves need to be estimated; and the needs might change as science changes (creating a loop in our estimating), and (b) the needs of society are partly shaped by what is expected to happen in the future; and, again, these expectations might be based on (at least implicit) estimations of futures of science (creating another loop).

It is interesting to note how inspiring old thinkers are from the perspective of futures of science!

Let’s go back to Merton.

The social roots of science, then, do not explain, for Merton, the contents or the methods of science. Rather, Merton attempts to explain the existence of recognizable scientific activities, interests, and goals in society. Merton’s most well-known work focused on science in the 17th century England. As Shapin has noted,

“[O]ne part of his enterprise was designed to explain “increased attention to science,” “the growth of interest in science and technology,” “the increased tempo of scientific activity,” “the enhanced cultivation of science,” the “elevat[ion] of science to a place of high regard in the social system of values,” the fact that science was “positively sanctioned”; while another part aimed to account for relatively large-scale changes in the “foci of scientific interests.” “Which forces guided the interests of scientists and inventors into particular channels?” Why, for example, was there an increase in attention to aerostatics and hydrostatics in the setting with which Merton was concerned? Why was so much of seventeenth-century English science (as Merton claimed) geared toward economic and military ends?“ (1988, 595.)

[Before continuing any further, I want to point out an important explanatory issue. One could wonder how it could be that the social roots do not explain the contents of science but only the existence of scientific activities. After all, the contents are the product of these activities; and if the social roots explain the activities, and if activities explain the contents, does it not follow that the roots explain the contents? The answer is “No”. Explanatory relations are not automatically transitive. The social roots explain why scientific activities existed rather than not. However, the existence of scientific activities does not explain why particular scientific result R rather than some another result R* was accepted; in both cases, scientific activities must exist.[3] Otherwise, there would be no results whatsoever. Confusions concerning causal chains appear quite frequently in historiography, especially because narrative form of presentations hides important causal information. (See more on the issue in Virmajoki 2018; 2019; 2020.)

Now that our heads are sober, let’s continue.]

Merton argued that there existed interdependence between science in the seventeenth century England and Puritanism. The values – or sentiments, as Merton (1938) calls them – of Puritanism included the following (summarized by Patel [1975]):

(a) Rationalism. Men chosen of God, alone possess reason. Reason constrains the passion. Experience and reason must be the bases for action and belief.

(b) Empiricism. The observation of nature, and unravelling its mysteries by discovering the order in it, is an effective means of promoting the glory of God—the Creator.

(c) Utilitarianism. Social welfare and public service were prescribed as God’s greatest service.

(d) Secularism. Systematic, methodical labour and constant diligence in one’s calling were emphasized.

(e) Scepticism and Free Inquiry. Libre-examen was considered not only a right but also an obligation. Even Bible as final and complete authority was subject to the individual interpretation. (Patel 1975, 58).

Patel notes that “All these values of Puritanism were obviously in harmony with the institutional values of science” (1975, 58). Together with other factors such as “England’s insular position, its nascent capitalism, widening markets and military warfares” (Patel 1975, 60) which produced all sorts of external needs for science to satisfy (see above), Puritanism was a “causal factor” in the development of science in the 17th century England.

I deliberately put the term “causal factor” in quotation marks because the exact nature of the relationship between Puritanism and science is a difficult issue. Merton never claimed that the relationship is a causal one. Neither did he think that explicit religious dogmas inspired science. On the contrary, he underlined that by Puritanism he means a set of sentiments. Neither can we say that science was in the service of religion or that science was subordinate to religion. The exact nature of the relationship can only be understood by a careful reading of Merton’s methodology as a sociologist (see Shapin 1988) and we are not able to do that here. However, the complexity of the relationship between science and religion provides us with an insight on what was possible for Merton to think but not for us:

The relationship between science and social/cultural values might not be that of complete internalization or subordination but something subtler and more invisible. We usually think science incorporates certain values – like criticality, objectivity, openness, and so on (whatever these ultimately mean) – that are constitutive of its goals, role, and function (internalized values). We think that we understand these values and that the values are the transparent core of a healthy science. On the other hand, sometimes we think that science does serve external interests or that it should serve such interests (subordination) This implies that the organization of science, for example the funding calls, must be organized in a way that makes the service of external interests possible. These two ways of thinking both have their merits (and probably are not completely mutually exclusive) and thus I will not argue for or against them. What I want to point out is that these two categories might hide subtler ways in which changes in social and cultural values affect science. For example, what could criticality mean it the era of A.I.? It is difficult to argue for or against models and modeling practices performed or created by machines, especially if the behavior of the machine is unintelligible. We want to harvest the powers of A.I. in science but how can this harvest be made compatible with the values of science? A change in the society (or technology within the society) might change the sentiments within science without there being any explicit attempt to bend science towards the needs of the society.

Also, our ideas concerning science might change through such subtle processes. I think that a sign of one such change becomes apparent while reading Merton’s writings. Merton spent some effort to analyze the role of individual geniuses in science and concluded that, while they are not indispensable as multiple independent discoveries indicate, they still speed up scientific progress. “The individual man of scientific genius is the functional equivalent of a considerable array of other scientists of varying degrees of talent” (Merton 1961, 484).

Today, the idea that individual geniuses are indispensable in science is something one rarely meets outside popular cultural. Even though research communities seek to have the leading scientists in their service and even though individuals or small groups are given scientific awards, hardly anyone thinks that individual geniuses are crucial for scientific achievements. Frankly, it seems odd that Merton took part in a debate concerning the role of individual geniuses. This tells us how much science and our conception of it has changed. Individual discoveries and breakthroughs do not stand out anymore and when they do, it goes without mentioning that the breakthroughs were ultimately based on collective efforts. Discourses concerning science center on resources, technology, and scientific training. For us, science is an institution whose capability of solving problems depends on other institutional factors, not on the contingent rise of geniuses. We no longer need a historical argument (like the one from multiple discoveries) to convince ourselves that individual geniuses do not determine science. Our conviction is based on the promises that are built in the scientific institutions. For example, Universities Finland UNIFI published 12 theses (see the figure below) on sustainable development and responsibility that require institutional adjustments to solve “great sustainability challenges”. The theses assume that science and research have (at least hidden) capability to solve those challenges and that the final result does not depend crucially on individual efforts but merely on institutional arrangements. As a part of the current world, I of course agree with this approach and I am not criticizing the theses. What I want to point out is how completely individual geniuses and breakthroughs have disappeared from our imagination in the face of problems that affect our sentiments the most.

Of course, I do not want to suggest that the issue of individual geniuses was central to Merton’s work. On the contrary, Merton discussed the role of social values and institutions in science and underlined the importance of the social arrangements. It is exactly this context within Merton’s work that makes the appearance of individual geniuses surprising and revealing. He seems to stand in a turning point in the historical thinking concerning science.

Merton has some very interesting things to say about the collective normative core of science and we will turn to that issue now.

Society of Science

In this section, we research the probably best-known part of Merton’s work, the cultural or institutional values of science. These “Merton’s norms” are often taught to the students and sometimes they are taken as the feature that characterizes science beyond its details and particular results. I find no evidence that Merton shared the view that science is ultimately a socially defined epistemic attitude. However, Merton was aware of the issue and he, as a sociologist, of course focused on the socially defined epistemic attitudes:

“Science is a deceptively inclusive word which refers to a variety of distinct though interrelated items. It is commonly used to denote (1) a set of characteristic methods by means of which knowledge is certified; (2) a stock of accumulated knowledge stemming from the application of these methods; (3) a set of cultural values and mores governing the activities termed scientific or (4) any combination of the foregoing. We are here concerned in a preliminary fashion with the cultural structure of science, that is, with one limited aspect of science as an institution. Thus, we shall consider, not the methods of science, but the mores with which they are hedged about”. (1968, 605).

Merton formulated “Four sets of institutional imperatives—universalism, communism, disinterestedness, organized scepticism—comprise the ethos of modem science” (1968, 607). Often, the imperative of originality is added to the list because it is essential in order to understand the reward system of science. Patel (1975) summarizes Merton’s imperatives as follows:

(a) Universalism

A scientific statement should be evaluated according to the established impersonal criteria of science and not according to the particularistic attribute of the individual who has made the statement.

(b) Communalism

In science collective ownership of knowledge is emphasized. Intellectual product is not a private property. Therefore, scientists should freely exchange and communicate their scientific findings.

(c) Disinterestedness

A scientist should examine the worth of scientific research with detach objectivity and without emotional involvement.

(d) Organized Scepticism

No scientist is supposed to accept any idea or belief, how-so-ever popular or sacred it may be, without freely testing it—both logically and empirically.

(e) Originality

A scientist is expected to contribute something original in the already existing fund of scientific knowledge.

These imperatives sound suspiciously familiar. Either they must be rooted deep in our conception of science or stem from some shared convictions. Often, deep-rooted conceptions are deceiving or at least vague. And while I do not want to say that Merton’s norms are flawed, we can say that at least their exact nature has been under serious scrutiny in the philosophy of science. For example, not everything can be doubted all the time and the real question is how scientific results can be achieved and evaluated despite this. It is equally unclear what it means that apply universal impersonal criteria in the evaluation of scientific projects. All science involves some idiosyncrasies and know-how; this is partly why it is so difficult to communicate scientific research and to replicate it.

Nevertheless, Merton’s norms capture important aspects of science. The historical background of Merton’s norms lay in the rise of totalitarian systems and the use of science within them. Merton saw the rise of Nazism. He eerily writes:

“[T]he ethos of science may not be consistent with that of the larger society. 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. [–] Hence the ideology is rounded out by a conception of ‘good’ and ´bad’ science: the realistic, pragmatic science of the Aryan is opposed to the dogmatic, formal science of the non-Aryan.” (1968, 609.)

Given the regrettable historical processes in which such ideologies participated, it is no wonder that Merton formulated norms that are violated within the ideological societies. In the next section, we also see how Merton’s norms serve as an argument for democracy: Only certain types of social systems can sustain the ethos of science. Before that, we need to mention certain phenomena within scientific societies that Merton explicated: Deviant behavior and unintended consequences of the reward system.

First, Merton (1957) analyzes priority disputes. These concern who first made certain discovery and who deserves the credit. Merton notes that such disputes cannot be explained away by psychological factors, as “mere expressions of human nature. On this view, egotism is natural to the species; scientists, being human, will have their due share and will sometimes express their egotism through self-aggrandizing claims to priority.” (1957, 637.) This explanation cannot be correct because some of the scientists who were involved in the disputes were quite modest and shy persons. Moreover, it has often been the case that the discoverers themselves do not participate in the disputes but their associates. This indicates that there must be a deeper reason for the disputes. Merton suggests that the norm of originality causes priority disputes:

“On every side, the scientist is reminded that it is his role to advance knowledge and his happiest fulfillment of that role, to advance knowledge greatly. This is only to say, of course, that in the institution of science originality is at a premium. For it is through originality, in greater or smaller increments, that knowledge advances”. (1957, 639.)

Given that originality is a norm in science and given that behavior in accordance with the norms is rewarded, originality is a feature of scientific research that leads to high rewards. These rewards provide the explicit incentives for scientist and because there thus exists an explicit incentive to be original, priority disputes follow.

The incentive can lead to fraud and plagiarism in science. Fraud, of course, is especially problematic because it undermines the epistemic underpinnings of science. Merton draws a continuum of fraud. “At the extreme are hoaxes and forgery: the concocting of false data in science and learning – or, more accurately, in pseudoscience and anti-scholarship. [–] [On the other end, there are] more frequent practices just beyond the edge of acceptability, sometimes without the scientist’s being aware that he has exceeded allowable limits.” (1957, 650-651.) Merton mentions an example that is familiar even today: Scientists may find themselves reporting only [–] successful experiments or results, so-called, and neglecting to report ‘failures.’ (Ibid.)  Merton also notes that “The indispensable reporting of research can [–] become converted into an itch to publish that, in turn, becomes aggravated by the tendency, in many academic institutions, to transform the sheer number of publications into a ritualized measure of scientific or scholarly accomplishment” (Merton 1957, 655).

The need and incentives to publish original research and the possible problems that follow were already recognized when Merton wrote (1957, 651) and one can only guess how our current times would appear to Merton. One could even ask whether the current institutional power of science is too meager to counter the problems. For example, the current use of publications and citations as explicit metrics indicates that Merton’s words were used as a guide, not as a warning.[4]

Another interesting detail is that Merton thought that “retreatism, the abandoning of the once-esteemed cultural goal of originality and of practices directed toward reaching that goal” is a deviant response from scientists to pressures produced by originality. “In such instances, the scientist withdraws from the field of inquiry, either by giving up science altogether or by confining himself to some alternative role in it, such as teaching or administration” (1957, 655.)

It is hard to imagine how current academia could function without people with such “deviant” behavior. I think this indicates how simplistic and old-fashioned Merton’s norms ultimately are. Surely, the fact that people teach and work in administration and teaching reflect more nuanced social organization and norms than mere responses to the pressures of original research. Merton still seems to live in the aftermath of gentleman science, where individual people could make great discoveries and where the administration and teaching were mere add-ons to the real essence of science as the final frontier to be explored by great individuals. This is painfully obvious when he writes “Perhaps most stressful of all is the situation in which the recognition accorded the scientist is not proportioned to his industry or even to the merit of his work. He may find himself serving primarily to remove obstacles to fundamental discoveries by others. His [–] negative experiments clear the road for the steady advance of science, but at the same time they clear the road for the more glamorous successes of other scientists (1957, 657.)  The great majority, in practice all, researchers in the today’s world cannot hope nothing more than a minor role in the global enterprise called science. There hardly is any stress in realizing that.

The unintended consequences of the scientific norms are

(a) The problem of 41st chair: Only a limited number of scientists can have the greatest rewards in terms of research positions and awards. “This can be described as the phenomenon of ‘the 41st chair.’ The derivation of this tag is clear enough. The French Academy, it will be remembered, decided early that only a cohort of 40 could qualify as members and so emerge as immortals. This limitation of numbers made inevitable, of course, the exclusion through the centuries of many talented individuals who have won their own immortality.” (Merton 1968A, 56.)

This phenomenon is familiar today. For example, the problem of 41st chair is discussed quite often in the Finnish journal Acatiimi. Discussions revolve around the question who deserves some position in academic ranks. In Acatiimi 6/2020 one reader finally asks whether researchers should ask how to do interesting science rather than how to achieve a position in ranks. The discrepancies between the behavior produced by reward structure and scientific ethos are clearly observed in the current academia.

(b) The Ratcher effect: “Once a Nobel laureate, always a Nobel laureate” (Merton 1968A, 57). Scientist who makes a great scientific achievement is expected to produce more such achievements. This motivates the scientist but also leads to a situation where the scientist has access to greater resources than others. This creates class structures that hardly reflect the ethos of science in their workings.

(c) Matthew effect: “[E]minent scientists get disproportionately great credit for their contributions to science while relatively unknown scientists tend to get disproportionately little credit for comparable contributions.” (Merton 1968A, 57.) This strengthens the class structure mentioned in (b).

These unintended consequences do not have much “philosophical” weight, but they are interesting from a practical point of view. Surely, many interesting phenomena can be found in science and named but what makes Merton’s discussion interesting is the discrepancies he points out between the ethos of science and the patterns of behavior. The problematic patterns of behavior are neither an independent fact of life nor can they be justified in terms of the scientific ethos (as is often attempted today). Rather, the behavior is an unintended consequence of the ethos. One cannot fix the problems by demanding people to follow the principles of scientific conduct. Paradoxically, the only way to change these patterns of behavior that go against the ethos of science would be to change that ethos itself!

This also reveals something that was possible for Merton to think but not for us: Science’s main function is to advance pure knowledge and this practice is based on an ethos and shared norms. The purity of science is of the utmost importance: “Science must not suffer itself to become the handmaiden of theology or economy or state” (1968, 597). The ethos of science can be understood/constructed as a real force that manifests itself in the advancement of knowledge and in the behavior of scientists.

In contrast, we are more and more worried about sharing and using scientific knowledge – in applying it – to solve the grand challenges of our times. We might use the rhetoric of “pure science”, but no one dares to avoid the notion of impact of the research. With this shift in the conception of advancement of knowledge follows a shift in the norms of science. For us, the scientific ethos is, at best, an ideal. More likely the notion of scientific ethos is a mere rhetorical device or an ambivalent abstraction from certain moral sentiments. There are two reasons for this, a conceptual and a practical one. First, the Mertonian norms are ambiguous, as we noted above. It is unclear how the effects of so ambiguous social categories on the concrete activities could be tracked. Secondly, even if scientific ethos and norms exist, adherence to them is difficult, given the shift in the epistemic goals. For example, given the need to collaborate with industry in order to solve sustainability challenges, the norm of communalism cannot be strictly followed. Moreover, there are important decisions that cannot be made in a disinterested way. As research becomes more and more expensive, the uncertainties in the intra-scientific estimations (for example, the estimations concerning the future of physics in terms of the current knowledge in physics) must be seriously taken into account when evaluating the possible benefits of scientific projects. All in all, scientific norms do not provide us with clear guidance and the idea of shared scientific ethos has scattered. We have to think about science in complex terms that reflect its many uses in and connections to the society. The normative space is enormous and cannot be navigated through in terms of an abstract ethos.

In what follows, we shall see that Merton found the relationship between the values of science and the values of other institutions to be in a possible conflict. This should make us wonder whether the values of science are in danger as the normative space explodes in the face of the problems of the 21st century.

Science and Society

Merton observed that the relationship between science and society is complex. The development of science requires certain type of social setting.

“The persistent development of science occurs only in societies of a certain order, subject to a peculiar complex of tacit presuppositions and institutional constraints. [–] [C]hanges in institutional structure may curtail, modify or possibly prevent the pursuit of science.” (Merton 1968, 591.)

Some societies are hostile towards science. The hostility arises in two sets of conditions:

(I) “The first involves the logical, though not necessarily correct, conclusion that the results or methods of science are inimical to the satisfaction of important values.” (Ibid.)

(II) “The second consists largely of non-logical elements. It rests upon the feeling of incompatibility between the sentiments embodied in the scientific ethos and those found in other institutions.” (Merton 1968, 591-592.)

Merton notes that this does not mean that science is approved by default. Rather, the approval of science results from the appreciation of its methods and from the matching sentiments between science and society. (Merton 1968, 592.) This means that the “position of science in the modern world may be analyzed, then, as a resultant of two sets of contrary forces, approving and opposing science as a large-scale social activity” (Ibid.).

The most important factor that shapes the attitudes towards science in a society is whether the society is authoritarian or liberal. Merton, due to his historical surroundings, notes the unfortunate state of science in Nazi Germany. He notes how the racist elimination of scientists from universities has weakened science in Germany since 1933. (1968, 592.). He notes how unstable the official attitudes towards science in Germany are. On the one hand, all knowledge and research must serve national interests. On the other hand, science is viewed essential to war and other national efforts. (1968, 594.) Even when the possible value of science is acknowledged, the autonomy of science is taken away.

Beneath the surface, the conflict is between the ethos and norms of a totalitarian state and those of science. “The ethos of science involves the functionally necessary demand that theories or generalizations be evaluated in terms of their logical consistency and consonance with facts. The political ethic would introduce the hitherto irrelevant criteria of the race or political creed of the theorist”. (1968, 595). In his characteristic manner, Merton has optimism, this time in terms of democracy: “However inadequately it may be put into practice, the ethos of democracy includes universalism as a dominant guiding principle. [–] Impersonal criteria of accomplishment and not fixation of status characterize the democratic society. [–] To the extent that a society is democratic, it provides scope for the exercise of universalistic criteria in science.” (1968, 609-610.)

It is easy to agree with Merton in the judgement that authoritarian systems harm and distort science. However, it more difficult to agree with the judgement considering the relationship between autonomy, democracy, and scientific progress. In what sense has science ever been autonomous? Science has always been embedded in societies and in some sense affected by the societies, even in democratic systems. As there always exists some interplay between science and society, the interesting issue is what kind of interplay between science and society is harmful for scientific progress. Surely, we can define autonomous science as a science that is not affected by an authoritarian regime. However, this does not help us to diagnose the decline of science within authoritarian societies in terms of lack of autonomy. Saying that “science declined due to its lack of autonomy” would mean, by definition that “science declined due to the rise of authoritarian system”, and the latter does not explain why authoritarian systems lead to the decline of science. It merely restates the issue. In order to know what social arrangements are harmful for scientific autonomy and therefore bad, we need to have a notion of autonomy that (a) makes it an empirical matter which systems support the autonomy of science, and (b) makes understandable the connection between autonomy and scientific progress. If science is never completely autonomous, the autonomy-nonautonomy distinction has no analytical value in the study of scientific progress. We need a more nuanced picture.

However, not everything in Merton’s analysis of hostility towards science revolves around the grand authoritarian-liberal axis. There are more mundane observations that are, again, oddly familiar to today’s reader.

First, while scientists defend the purity of science and its independence from the surrounding society, “readiness to accept the authority of science rests, to a considerable extent, upon its daily demonstration of power” (1968, 597). This interplay between scientific knowledge and its applications links together the approval of science and its applications. If the applications and their social consequences are disapproved, the science that produced these applications is also disapproved (Merton 1968, 598). The obvious example are nuclear weapons. The threat that such weapons pose might make one question the desirability of science that has such enormous power.

Secondly, science has become unintelligible for non-scientists. People have to take “on faith” the statements of science. Again, such faith is often based on technological innovations presumably stemming from science. However, the theories of science are counterintuitive and cannot be assessed by people without scientific training. On the other hand, pseudoscience and ideological frameworks are often intuitive and appear intelligible. This leads some people to trust pseudoscience and ideologies more than science. The increasing status of science provides pseudoscience, as a sort of parasite, more opportunities to gain followers. (Merton 1968, 600-601.)

Thirdly, the organized skepticism of science is annoying in that it challenges existing beliefs in almost every areas of life. “Science may seem to challenge the ‘comfortable power assumptions’ of other institutions, simply by subjecting them to detached scrutiny (Merton 1968, 601). Given that the beliefs thus challenged, especially the most “sacred” ones, often have an important place in the life of individuals and institutions, a counterreaction against science is a possible consequence of the attempts to save integrity.

Ironically, the science studies of the past decades have put science under ever increasing scrutiny. The picture that this research draws about science is complicated and shows the impossibility of taking science as a single unit of analysis. For example, the ideas of autonomy of science, pure science, and the relationship between science and society have turned out to involve many smaller issues that differ between different sciences, locations and times. Even though Merton’s picture of science is very nuanced – and I think it is more nuanced than anything that has been written since – the picture still commits to one single autonomous institution of science and carries the idea that such autonomous and pure institution can and must be defended. This leads us to one more thing that was possible for Merton to think but not for us:

The ethos of science and its drive for the advancements of pure knowledge make it an institution that comes as a single package that (a) either fits or does not fit a society and (b) either retains its basic essence or is distorted by society.

Surely, we still want to believe that science – and the civilization and technology provided by it – can only live in democratic and free societies and that science is independent of any possible uses it might have or interests it might satisfy, i.e. that science is autonomous. Such beliefs from our desire to believe that the enormous potential of science is something that societies – not individual people or groups of people – have control over. However, deep inside we know that science cannot be controlled in an ideal way. Science can be advanced in many types of societies and companies. Whose interests and what uses science will serve are questions that are negotiated in the every-day realities of science and often the outcome is severely limited by the realities. The negotiations might not resemble democratic processes.

The problem is how we can note these realities concerning science and still keep the optimism that Merton had towards the role of pure science. The fact that something has become unthinkable does not mean that the idea itself is without any value. On the contrary, it means that our horizon of possibilities is limited and deserves to be put under scrutiny.


Merton, Robert (1985). “George Sarton: Episodic Recollections by an Unruly Apprentice.” Isis 76 (4).

Merton, Robert (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure.

Merton, Robert (1968A). “The Mathew Effect”. Science 159 (3810).

Merton, Robert (1963). “Resistence to the Systematic Study of Multiple Discoveries in Science”. European Journal of Sociology.

Merton, Robert (1961). “Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science”. Proceedings, American Philosophical Society 105 (5).

Merton, Robert (1957). “Priorities in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science.” American Sociological Review 22 (6).

Merton, Robert (1938). “Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England”. Osiris.

Merton, Robert (1937). “The Sociology of Knowledge”. Isis 27 (3).

Patel, Pravin J. (1975). “Robert Merton’s Formulations in Sociology of Science” Sociological Bulletin 24 (1).

Shapin, Steven (1988). “Understanding the Merton Thesis”. Isis 79

[1] Notice, however, the problematic status of the notion of external factors (Virmajoki 2019, Ch.5).

[2] Notice that Merton was well aware of that the link between science and society can be understood in many ways. (1968, 514-515).

[3] An analogy: If you ask me why I watch football rather than cook food, the answer cannot be “because I’m home”. If I wasn’t home, I wouldn’t cook either.

[4] Of course, I am aware that reading Merton most likely has not affected these practices; this was a little joke.

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