The Role of Social Structures in Science

October 5, 2016

Philosophers, Scientists, Historians and STS scholars have differentiated science from other fields through its reliance on empiricism, use of mathematics, and filtration through a unique social structure. In this analysis into these three differentiating claims, I wish to show that the unique social structure that drives scientific work is the most influential in the development of scientific knowledge. The roles of empiricism and mathematics act more as tools that are then interpreted through this unique social structure that judges what counts as scientific knowledge. I wish to show that while mathematical logic and observational experience drive the production of science, the social structures at play may constrain which accounts are taken seriously and may over value historical, previously certified accounts. Before weighing the values of empiricism, mathematics, and social structure against each other, I wish first to define Robert Merton’s norms for performing science and examine the structure of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. While the Mertonian norms are not steadfast rules, they are precedents that we can use to discuss empiricism, mathematics, and social structure as tools that drive and manage paradigm shift.

The Mertonian Norms

In 1973 Robert Merton published his four norms for behavior in the scientific community. They are as follows: universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. These norms work in unison to ensure successful, non-fraudulent scientific work. Universalism and communism work together to allow others to build on the work of one and other. Universalism requires that criteria used to evaluate a claim are independent of identity of author (Sismondo 2010, p48). This leads into the communism norm that states that science is a social activity that only can come about through use of previously distributed findings (Sismondo 2010, p49). These previous findings can claim credit but not control use because scientific knowledge is commonly owned and publicly accessible (Sismondo 2010, p48). Communism blends into disinterestedness, which requires that scientists should widely publicize all findings even if they do not meet the goals of the experiment (Sismondo 2010, p49). Merton believes that fraud is rare in science because scientists should have no personal goals or agenda (Sismondo 2010, p49). The last norm is one that operates both between scientific communities and between individual scientists. Organized skepticism is the tendency for community or members of the community to be skeptical of new ideas until they have been well established (Sismondo 2010, p49). While scientists also maintain a private, “internalized version of the norm,” after breaking past internal skepticism, “[n]ew claims are often greeted by arrays of public challenges” such as responding with skepticism at conferences (Sismondo 2010, p49). The importance of these norms is not absolute and the reality of them can often be questionable.

Sismondo references a case wherein the scientific community refused to read the work of a ‘scientist’ who claimed that biblical events were founded upon physics. Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (1950) was publicly bashed in many journals by scientists who had refused to read it (Sismondo 2010, p54). Velikovsky’s claims did not follow established beliefs so his peers decided not to evaluate his work within the Mertonian norms of universalism, communism, and disinterestedness choosing instead to overvalue organized skepticism and ignore the other three norms (Sismondo 2010, p55). This type of activity where the established epistemology disregards the anomalistic claims of an outsider is what concerns me most.

Not only does the tight knit community of existing scientists who agree with existing claims threaten the Mertonian norms, so too does the “increasing amount of science [that] is linked to applications on which there are possible financial stakes” (Sismondo 2010, p55). The communistic Mertonian norm is at risk due to the secretive manner of scientists trying to beat their peers to a new discovery. The disinterestedness Mertonian norm is at risk due to the drive to be the one to discover one of these new applications that will lead to financial gain.

Merton’s norms are guidelines that he believes scientists should follow “to best provide certified knowledge” and Sismondo claims that “[w]e can explain almost any scientific episode as one of adherence to Mertonian norms, or as one of the violation of those norms” (Sismondo 2010, p58). Therefore these norms should be seen as resources and guidelines rather than strict operative instructions (Sismondo 2010, p59). These norms give us lenses to examine later examples through.

Normal Science and the Growth of Scientific Communities Around Paradigms

Thomas Kuhn’s Structures of Revolutions (1970) provides our working idea of paradigm and creates a timeline for the structure of scientific progress. In his attempt to underscore the priority of paradigms, Kuhn notes that “explicit rules, when they exist, are usually common to a very broad scientific group, but paradigms need not be” (Kuhn 1970, p49). Paradigms allow specialization wherein groups of scientists can define subgroups from within to drive their scientific work. Normal science can be seen to utilize the Mertonian norms to pursue knowledge.

Kuhn defines normal science as “research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice” (Kuhn 1970, p10). The achievements of normal science can be seen in textbooks which provide foundations for other, future, scientists and lead the way for “coherent traditions of scientific research” to develop (Kuhn 1970, p10). Universalism and communism encourage this type of progression that is important for scientists who plan to work at forefront of a scientific field. Working in scientific communities, these scientists will work with others “who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models” and therefore “his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals” (Kuhn 1970, p11). Rather than question foundational issues, scientists “whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice” (Kuhn 1970, p11). It is important to note that “[n]o part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena” (Kuhn 1970, p24). Scientists within a community operate within a similar line of organized skepticism. Claims outside the existing paradigm will be ignored. Scientists who do normal science “do not normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others” (Kuhn 1970, p24). Normal science as Kuhn defines it is more of puzzle solving than discovery.

The Role of Math and Empiricism in Puzzle Solving

In order to think about puzzle solving, we must discuss empiricism and mathematics as tools for scientific work. Godfrey-Smith tells us that empiricism claims the “only source of real knowledge about the world is experience” (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p8). He goes on to state that generally empiricist views differentiate “science and everyday thinking as differences of detail and degree” (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p8). Essentially empiricist definitions of science claim its organized and systemic method of observation lead to true and confirmed knowledge about the world (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p8).

While empiricism operates on experience from the real world, mathematics claims its ability to do science on a piece of paper. Galileo was a large proponent of mathematics stating that no scientist could understand the way of the world until she learned math first and went on to praise Copernicus for allowing math to override sense data (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p10–11). Godfrey-Smith is cautious about the value of math in science stating that it is “not as essential to science as Galileo thought” (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p11). I am going to take this side too and agree with Godfrey-Smith’s thought that “mathematics used as a tool within an empiricist outlook” makes more sense as a claim of importance (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p11). Both math and empiricism act as tools within the unique social structures existent in scientific communities.

Scientific communities performing normal science use these tools to test and validate their current paradigm. These communities choose to work on problems that “while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions” (Kuhn 1970, p37). Ideas that do not fall within the existing paradigm “are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time” (Kuhn 1970, p37). This reality goes so far that large problems may be ignored within the context of the communities’ science. The leaders may work to “insulate the community from those socially important problems that are not reducible to the puzzle form” (Kuhn 1970, p37). This activity of puzzle solving simplifies the outlook of a scientist. Previously agreed upon foundations, both “help to set puzzles and to limit acceptable solutions” (Kuhn 1970, p40). The process of normal science is one that aims to confirm and validate the foundation of the existing paradigm.

The Role of Social Structures in Revolutions

Godfrey-Smith uses Carl Hempel’s example of Ignaz Semmelweiss who worked in a Vienna hospital in the mid-nineteenth century as an example of the role of social structures in science. After administering simple empirical tests to prove that doctors were less likely to infect mothers if they washed their hands prior to delivering the babies, Semmelwiess was driven out of the hospital by his peers (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p9). While Godfrey-Smith writes humorously about the reaction to this ‘radical claim’, it is a great example of organized skepticism in existent social structures overriding empiricism and driving out individuals who attempt to change the status quo.

Social structures manage paradigm stability. Organized skepticism exists within these paradigm- centered societies and claims that do not fit into the paradigm are dismissed. Godfrey-Smith lays out the role of a unique social structure in science and the crux of my argument here:

Empiricism is supposed to urge that people be distrustful of authority and go out to look directly at the world. But of course this is a fantasy. It is a fantasy in the case of everyday knowledge, and it is an even greater fantasy in the case of science. Almost every move that a scientist makes depends on elaborate networks of cooperation and trust. If each individual insisted on testing everything himself, science would never advance beyond the most rudimentary ideas. Cooperation and lineages of transmitted results are essential to science.

(Godfrey-Smith 2003, p12)

This elaborate network of trust underlies any and all normal science or puzzle solving that goes on using math alongside organized and systemized observation. This same social structure uses organized skepticism to question anomalies that lay the path for revolutionary science.

The discovery of X-rays shows what can happen when a scientist stumbles upon something unexpected during his normal puzzle solving. While Roentgen was performing an experiment he noticed an unrelated anomaly. After noticing, “that a barium platino-cyanide screen at some distance from his shielded apparatus glowed” while performing his experiment, Roentgen followed up with “seven hectic weeks during which [he] rarely left the laboratory” (Kuhn 1970, p57). This shows a divergence from the disinterested scientist as presented by Merton. After confirming his findings, Roentgen was met with skepticism from his community — X-rays “violated deeply entrenched expectations” (Kuhn 1970, p59). The time around revolutions is where the disinterestedness and organized skepticism norms become most fluid. Build up of unexpected phenomena along with “previous awareness of anomaly” should lead to “the gradual and simultaneous emergence of both observational and conceptual recognition, and the consequent change of paradigm categories and procedures often accompanied by resistance” (Kuhn 1970, p62). This resistance, or organized skepticism, is difficult to manage and gauge. Resistance to change can be fueled by historical prestige and vested interest in the success of a field.

Organized skepticism seems like it can act as interest to maintain the current paradigm. While understood that “[t]he decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other,” individual scientists struggle to drive this shift on their own (Kuhn 1970, p77). Scientists “[b]y themselves… cannot and will not falsify that philosophical theory, for its defenders.. will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict” (Kuhn 1970, p78). The overthrow of their current paradigm usually must overthrow their internal skepticism before they attempt to bring peers on board “though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis” (Kuhn 1970, p77). Kuhn notes that “[t]he scientist who pauses to examine every anomaly he notes will seldom get significant work done.” (Kuhn 1970, p82) Scientific communities demand respect of the current paradigm — “to desert the paradigm is to cease practicing the science it defines” (Kuhn, 1970, p34). Due to the communistic norm, students of science have been taught throughout their academic careers to follow the foundations before them.

Scientific Communities as Elite Social Structures

Sismondo writes extensively about the social structures that drive the continuation of scientific progress. Noting that scientists form elite groups, Sismondo questions whether “the knowledge for which elites are recognized [is] intrinsically and objectively valuable, or does it become so because of its association with elites?” (Sismondo 2010, p65). The statistics about continuation of scientific work, as judged by published papers, are even more startling. Not only are 80% of citations to 20% of papers, but 50% of the papers are produced by 10% of the authors (Sismondo 2010, p65–66). Scientific authors are validating these historical claims each time they cite them, further raising their value among future articles that will inevitably cite them as well. This type of activity is an almost necessary result of institutionalized science educations. The reality is that “science students accept theories on the authority of teacher and text, not because of evidence. What alternatives have they, or what competence?” (Kuhn 1970, p80). The accumulation of this narrowing of access to specific scientific works can be seen in what Merton calls the ‘Matthew Effect’ wherein positive feedback loops exacerbate existing situations:

Gospel According to St Matthew (13, line 12): “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
 (Sismondo 2010, p69)

As Sismondo so adequately summarizes, “[i]n science, success breeds success” (Sismondo 2010, p69). A longer explanation of this follows below:

People with some of the identified valuable psychological traits and work habits in the list above are more likely to have a famous mentor, and to study at a prestigious graduate school. Once there, they are more likely to gain employment in a prestigious department. People in better departments may have access to better facilities and intellectual stimulation. Perhaps more importantly, they are more visible and therefore more likely to be cited.

(Sismondo 2010, p69)

So while empiricism and math play a vital role in the puzzle solving aspect of scientific work and allow the activity of normal science as defined by Kuhn, these actions are taken by individuals within a specific social structure. The Mertonian norms of communism, universalism, and disinterestedness are meant to act as deterrents to the possibility of existing social structure to override the use of empiricism and math. Disinterestedness and organized skepticism become fluid and can come to be reversed in situations of revolution. The Mertonian norms are not strict rules and cannot be enforced to ensure ‘proper science’. Proper science in and of itself is difficult enough concept to define on its own. The role of unique social structures in science show us that, it is not what you know, it is who you know that matters.

Works Cited

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science: Theory and Reality. Chicago.: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Sismondo, Sergio. An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2010.