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


One Reply to “Scientist as Expert, Superman and Superwoman”

  1. Interesting reflection. Reading it reminded me of feminist historian of science Donna Haraway’s observation that Western science positions itself in a space that allegedly no one else inhabits, which gives it full view of everything “from nowhere,” securing it “unfettered power” (Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3):581).

    I am fascinated by the connection you make between science’s putative norms and superheroism. It’s a valid connection that throws into relief the value-laden (and, one could argue, self-interested) dimensions of scientific norms/ideals. I am also fascinated by your observation that superhero status at points where scientists and publics meet is always negotiable (and perhaps even fragile). Why do you think that is? What about appearing as “the expert” at all times in relation to a community’s problem might squander good feelings in the community? Do you see this tension as about competition? Or are there other factors that might contribute to it?

    On a different note, I think that Merton too acknowledged scientists’ routine departure from science’s putative norms. Mulkay, for example, states that Merton, “has tried to account for the very considerable deviation from these norms by introducing the notion of ‘counternorm'” (p. 639). Merton was writing in the 1960s — over half a century ago. Why (and how), do you think, his (and others’) critiques of scientific culture are still not widely known?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *