Scientist as Expert, Superman and Superwoman

Robert Merton was on a quest.  Science has been very successful in his lifetime.  Science split the atom and cured polio among other things.  Science has delivered the “goods”.  Merton’s quest is a functionalist one.  He looks at the scientific community and tries to identify the “special” things at play in science that do not occur in society at large.  What does he find?  Merton tells us that the scientific community plays by different social rules.  Specifically, Merton argues that scientific communities are ruled by universalism (impersonal criteria for truth), communism (common ownership of ideas), disinterestness (rational objective motivation) and Organized Skepticism (show me!).   When scientist follow all of these rules, they act as supermen and superwomen, as they put aside all the normal human motivations of success, greed, power and other special interest.

There are those that disagree with Merton.  An easy violation of scientific norms is fraud, such as Piltdown Man.  Mitroff Looked at the Apollo space project.  He found that the scientists who worked on the project were anything but disinterested.  They had an extreme emotional commitment to the project.

Another to disagree is Michael Mulkay.  Mulkay shows that scientist routinely violate these norms.  But, Mulkay goes further than breaking the rules and points out that sometime scientific norms are as odds, where one norm is broken in order to follow another.  Mulkay gives us the example of the book “Worlds in Collision” by Immanuel Velikovsky.  The book proposed that historical catastrophes on Earth were the result of near collisions with large bodies.  Other scientists saw this as pseudo-science and would not even read it.  The norms of organized skepticism and disinterestness were being ignored because the scientists through the claim was inconsistent with the laws of mechanics.  Here, protection of established truths are held as more important than other scientific norms.  OF course, this raises the ideas of Kuhn.

Kuhn argues that it is not rules of the community that make science, but it is the agreement of ideas that creates the scientific paradigm.  Scientific behavior is the problem solving done within the paradigm.  Mitroff, Mulkay and Kuhn are correct, then the norms of science that Merton describes seem to be more like cognitive norms, rather than social ones.  When looking at actual scientific behavior, the norms of science are always in negotiation.  What does this say about the role of scientist out in the community?  There seems to be some social assets available for the scientist when they are at large in the lay community.  But, the violation of these superman and superwoman rules could cost or add to veracity.  Emotional attachment may bring greater acceptance by a lay communities.  But, taking the spotlight and appearing on TV all the time as the “expert” may squander good feelings.  The bottom line is that the expert status of the scientist in the lay community is always in negotiation and tied to the place.  What works in one community may not work in another.  An expert today may be the forgotten tomorrow.



Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 1962

Merton, Robert, The sociology of science, 1973

Mitroff, Ian, American Sociological Review, 1974

Mulkay, Michael, Some Aspects of cultural growth in science, Social Research 1969


Ethnography: Soft science with hard results

Last week we began reading about the ethnographic method.  First, I wanted to share a definition of ethnography that I have always greatly admired.  Clifford Geertz argued for a “thick” ethnographic study of culture.  Thick meaning that a simple explanation in a complex culture will always be inadequate.  Thick analysis not only looks at culture from multiple perspectives, but also penetrates the psychology.  In thick analysis, the values, the logics, the reasoning are as important as the behaviors, which we should recognize as a challenge to a simple functionalist explanation.

One thing that struck me about our reading is the idea that we explicitly make ourselves an instrument of study in ethnography.  But when you think about it, many STS studies suggest that this is always the case, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even in the hard or physical sciences, STS studies show how the social is always present.  Examples of this would include Kuhn ideas on the social organization of scientific knowledge (i.e. paradigms) and Latour’s analysis of Louis Pasture inviting the social into the lab.

This idea of embracing the social nature of analysis contrasts very strongly with some of my personal experiences in the social sciences back in the 1980’s.  In 1984, I was developing a master’s thesis proposal in sociology.  This was unique time for sociology as it seemed to be struggling to become a quantitative “science”, requiring advanced statistical analysis for most studies at the time.  This was prior to the post-modern movement and the science wars, which I think dialed sociology back to the qualitative side a bit.

During the thesis proposal process, I had two tenured sociology professors specifically call me into their offices after my proposal was first circulated.  Both of them said the exact same thing, which was, “Nobody cares what your opinion is or what you have to say.  You the ideas of someone who counts and then you add to their thinking.  The only thing that matters is what the data tells us.”   The implication was very clear to me.  I took my thesis more quantitative or they would go out of their way to block any kind of qualitative thesis.  Sociology graduates coming out of that program needed to be quantitative scientists.

So, I spent the next few months looking at a survey data that I could associate with my research question and on a daily basis I infusing that data with profound social opinions, such as grouping the data by artificial categories of age, gender, income, education, community and opinion that I made up.  For example, I could not say that individuals who were anti-abortion and pro-school prayer were linked by conservative ideology, but I could twist data just about any way I wanted and then pronounce the two linked if I had a chi square that was sufficient.  This is using the scientific method, so it has to be good.  Right?  Sociology in 1985 wanted a theory, hypothesizes, data and conclusions.  The rich ethnographic studies of the 1920’s Chicago school seemed a distant past at that time.  Thick study of culture?  Or, a thick headed attempt to science up a social phenomenon?

Ethnography proposes an alternative course to knowledge.  Ethnography is inductive in nature.  The ethnographer starts by building up the data from actual participants and then drawing conclusions.  The statistical analysis of the 1980’s took national opinion survey data and then extrapolated to everyone else in society, even those communities where no survey participant lived.  Ethnography actually connects with the individuals that are being studied.  This is why I am so looking forward to completing some ethnographic research this summer.


Latour, Bruno ,Give Me a Laboratory and I will Raise the World in Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, eds., Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, London and Beverly Hills; Sage, 1983, pp. 141-170.


Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.


Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2012.