by Connor Lynch '17
As students here at Brown or anywhere pour themselves into the discipline of science and try to understand how nature functions, it can be easy to lose sight of the other aspects of the scientific pursuit. Sure, when we study physics or bio-engineering the main point is to understand the inner workings of the physical laws of the universe or how biological processes can solve problems. However, while we learn about scientific concepts it helps to pay tribute to and understand the sociological and philosophical aspects of science. Looking at science from these other angles and remembering that it is human beings who carry out the scientific enterprise will help science as a whole. In addition, the people engaged in this enterprise will be able to improve their findings and produce more objective truth that more people can rely on.
Born in 1910, Robert Merton was a very well-known sociologist who was the first to coin the term "sociology of science". He was a pioneer in analyzing the true nature of the scientific enterprise as well as the human element of the search for truth. From his most famous work Social Theory and Social Structure, "Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue".
One example really showcases this sociological aspect of science well: the global warming debate. Here we go again. It is easy to take sides in this slippery slope discussion depending on your political background. But let's take an unbiased look at how this climate debate really became a distorted mess of fact/fiction and the extent to which it damaged the reputation of the scientific enterprise. The climate change investigation really took a turn for the worst because scientists on both sides were fueled by political motivations. Some were interested and had a stake in what they results yielded. Due to these unfortunate events the global warming debate has left a negative mark on many people. The truth had been distorted by a few and the masses for curious laymen had no idea what to believe. Regardless of whether someone is conservative, liberal, green, libertarian, or anarchist, the public needs objective, true facts and data so that they can make their own decisions and conclusions instead of being told what to believe.
Merton stated that to uphold objective truth science needed these idealistic norms:
1. Communalism/Communism - Scientific findings are the common property of the entire community
2. Universalism - any person can contribute to science regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc.
3. Disinterestedness - Scientists are supposed to take an unbiased approach to scientific research and not be invested in the results.
4. Organized Skepticism - There is a rigorous process by which scientific findings are tested and analyzed by one's scientific peers.
All of these points that I have brought up here and the claims that Merton make attempt to guide science in the right direction. If the public and the scientists themselves can become more willing to eliminate their biases or at least be more aware of them, then everyone can stay better informed and the information that is published will be held in confidence. Remember the scientific enterprise is carried out by flawed human beings but by working together it is our responsibility to produce useful factual information that can be used for progress.
Here are some suggestions for further reading if this subject greatly interests you:
1. Social Theory and Social Structure by Robert Merton
2. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway
3. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations by Robert Merton
4. Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison