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How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/08

The scientific knowledge inherited from ancient Babylon and Greece and from medieval Islam was gained by individuals or by groups isolated from one another in time as well as geography. Perhaps the most consequential feature of the “modern” science that we date from the 17th-century Scientific Revolution is the global interaction of the people who are doing science, and especially the continuity over time of their collective endeavors.
These interactions among scientists began in quite informal and individual ways. An important step was the formation of academies and societies, among which the Royal Society of London is usually acknowledged to be the earliest (founded 1660) that has remained active up to the present time — though it was not the earliest such institution and even the claim of “longest continually active” has been challenged [1].
Even nowadays, the global community of scientists remains in many ways informal despite the host of scientific organizations and institutions, national and international: the global scientific community is not governed by any formal structure that lays down how science should be done and how scientists should behave.
However, observing the actualities of scientific activity indicates that there had evolved some agreed-on standards generally seen within the community of scientists as proper behavior. Around the time of the Second World War, sociologist Robert Merton described those informal standards, and they came to be known as the “Mertonian Norms” of science [2]. They comprise:

Ø    Communality or communalism (Merton had said “communism”): Science is an activity of the whole scientific community and it is a public good — findings are shared freely and openly.
Ø    Universalism: Knowledge about the natural world is universally valid and applicable. There are no separations or distinctions by nationality or religion race or anything of that sort.
Ø    Disinterestedness: Science is done for the public good and not for personal benefit; scientists seek to be impartial, objective, unbiased, and not self-serving.
Ø    Skepticism: Claims and reported findings are subject to critical appraisal and testing throughout the scientific community before they can be accepted as proper scientific knowledge.

Note that honesty is not mentioned; it was simply taken for granted.
These norms clearly make sense for a cottage industry, as ideal behavior that individuals should aim for; but they are not appropriate for a corporate environment, they cannot guide the behavior of individuals who are part of some hierarchical enterprise.
In the late 1990s, John Ziman [3] discussed the change in scientific activity as it had morphed from the activities of an informal, voluntary collection of individuals seeking to understand how the world works to a highly organized activity with assigned levels of responsibility and authority and where sources of research funding have a say in what gets done, and which often expect to get something useful in return for their investments, something profitable.
The early cottage industry of science had been essentially self-supporting. Much could be done without expensive equipment. People studied what was conveniently at hand, so there was little need for funds to support travel. Interested patrons and local benefactors could provide the small resources needed for occasional meetings and the publication of findings.
Up to about the middle of the 20th century, universities were able to provide the funds needed for basic research in chemistry and biology and physics. The first sign that exceptional resources could be needed had come in the 1920s when Lawrence constructed the first large “atom-smashing machine”; but that and the need for expensive astronomical telescopes remained outliers in the requirements for the support of scientific research overall.
From about the time of the Second World War, however, research going beyond what had already been accomplished began to require ever more expensive and specialized equipment as well as considerable infrastructure: technicians to support the equipment, glass-blowers and secretaries and book-keepers and librarians, and managers of such ancillary staff; so researchers increasingly came to need support beyond that available from individual patrons or universities. Academic research came to rely increasingly on getting grants for specific research projects from public agencies or from wealthy private foundations.
Although those sources of research funds typically claim that they want to support simply “the best science”, their view of what the best science is does not necessarily jibe with the judgments of the individual researchers [4].
At the same time as research in universities was calling on outside sources of funding, an increasing number of industries were setting up their own laboratories for research specifically toward creating and improving their products and services. Such product-specific “R&D” (research and development) sometimes turned up novel basic knowledge, or revealed the need for such fundamentally new understanding. One consequence has been that some really striking scientific advances have come from such famous industrial laboratories as Bell Telephone Laboratories or the Research Laboratory of General Electric. Researchers employed in industry have received a considerable number of Nobel Prizes, often jointly with academics [5].
Under these new circumstances, as Ziman [3] pointed out, the traditional distinction between “applied” research and “pure” or “basic” research lost its meaning.
Ziman rephrased the Mertonian norms as the nice acronym CUDOS, adding the “O” for originality, quite appropriately since within the scientific community credit was and is given to for the most innovative, original contributions; CUDOS, or preferably “kudos”, being the Greek term for acclaim of exceptional accomplishment. By contrast, Ziman proposed for the norms that obtain in a corporate scientific enterprise, be it government or private, the acronym PLACE: Researchers nowadays get their rewards not by adhering to the Mertonian norms but by producing Proprietary findings whose significance may be purely Local rather than universal, the subject of research having been chosen under the Authority of an employer or patron and not by the individual researcher, who is Commissioned to do the work as an Expert employee.

Ziman too did not mention honesty; like Merton he simply took it for granted.
Ziman had made an outstanding career in solid-state physics before, in his middle years, he began to publish, starting in 1968 [6] highly insightful works about how science functions, in particular what makes it reliable. In the late 1960s, it had still been reasonable to take honesty in science for granted; but by the time Ziman published Prometheus Bound, honesty in science could no longer be taken for granted; Ziman had failed to notice some of what was happening in scientific activity. Competition for resources and for career advancement had increased to a quite disturbing extent, presumably the impetus for the increasing frequency with which scientists were found to have cheated in some way. Even published, supposedly peer-reviewed research failed later attempted confirmation in many cases, and all too often it was revealed as simply false, faked [7].
More about that in a following blog post.


[1]    “The Royal Societies [sic] claim to be the oldest is based on the fact that they developed out of a group that started meeting in Gresham College in 1645 but unlike the Leopoldina this group was informal and even ceased to meet for two years between 1658 and 1660” — according to The Renaissance Mathematicus, “It wasn’t the first but…”
[2]    Robert K. Merton, “The normative structure of science” (1942); most readily accessible as pp. 267–78 in The Sociology of Science (ed. N. Storer, University of Chicago Press, 1973) a collection of Merton’s work
[3]    John Ziman, Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State, Cambridge University Press, 1994
[4]    Richard Muller, awarded a prize by the National Science Foundation, pointed out that truly innovative studies are unlikely to be funded and need to be carried out more or less surreptitiously; and Charles Townes, who developed masers and lasers, testified to his difficulty in getting research support for that ground-breaking work, or even encouragement from some of his distinguished older colleagues —
Richard A. Muller, “Innovation and scientific funding”, Science, 209 (1980) 880–3
Charles Townes, How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Oxford University Press , 1999
[5]    Karina Cummings, “Nobel Science Prizes in industry”;
Nobel Laureates and Research Affiliations
[6]    John Ziman, Public Knowledge (1968); followed by The Force of
(1976); Reliable Knowledge (1978); An Introduction to Science
(1984); Prometheus Bound (1994); Real Science (2000);
all published by Cambridge University Press
[7]    John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why most published research findings are false”,
         PLoS Medicine, 2 (2005) e124
Daniele Fanelli, “How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data”,
PLoS ONE, 4(#5, 2009): e5738


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