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Steven Shapin’s Scientific Life January 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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One of Steven Shapin’s longstanding concerns has been to observe the virtues governing the conduct of inquiry and the laying of claims to knowledge.  His early studies focused on the behavior and status of gentlemen as an assurance that observations of matters of fact were being reported honestly and without ulterior motive.  His new work, The Scientific Life, inspects the moral life of industrial research.

Shapin’s project can profitably be regarded as a reaction to Robert Merton’s sociology of science, which held that scientific inquiry can be distinguished from non-scientific inquiry by its “norms” (communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originality, and skepticism).  According to Shapin, we generate a more coherent and satisfying historical picture if we regard scientific work as a part of the culture surrounding it, and the rules of inquiry as an extension of that culture, rather than to regard science as something to be distinguished from it that can be separated and assayed, like a chemical, wherever and whenever it might be found.  This is part of the “lowering of the tone” that Shapin referred to in his lecture at HSS.

So, it is not surprising that Shapin’s new book urges us to consider the moral life of industrial research in its own right, rather than in comparison to academic ideals, which might implicitly be considered a more “pure” form of science.  I would guess this is why my favorite historiographer, David Edgerton, has provided the book with a glowing (“brilliant”) back cover blurb.  Edgerton, whose work spans the histories of science and technology but rarely ventures into the epistemological, has long advocated a historiography wherein industrial research, and particularly its central importance to national life, becomes a sustained object of research and explication.  I enthusiastically promote this project, and Shapin is to be commended for providing it with a new angle.

The question that bothers me is whether industrial research can sustain a coherent account of its moral life as well as a history of ideas about this moral life.  On the first count, Shapin’s research clearly suggests not.  From p. 229 (specifically, from the phrase “letting the participants speak, to a large extent, for themselves”) we find a multifaceted and contradictory research activity.  Scientists are interested in finding things out, but also technology and business.  Scientists are interested in knowledge, but also curing cancer and making money.  Scientists are interested in their independence, but also teamwork and serving organizations.  Etc.

Shapin’s sociological work here is the most lively part of the book, but I’m not exactly shocked (shocked!) by the results.  I keep up with technology news.  I have a subscription to The Economist.  I watch the Discovery Channel from time to time and think it’s reasonably decent.  One of my main troubles with the history of science profession is that I constantly find myself trying to figure out what position it is that I’m supposed to be unlearning and moving beyond.  When Shapin is at his most explicit about this point, specifically his screed against Mertonian sociologists on pp. 110-119, he is at his most effective.

But seeing as the Mertonian sociologist is a rare breed these days, there must be more people who might be enlightened by the insights here presented.  After all, Shapin insists, especially on p. 265, that “the vocabulary historians and sociologists have to describe these things [effectively, the contemporary smorgasbord of activities related to science and technology], and the sensibilities they have available to evaluate them, are, to put it blunty, seriously disconnected from the lived experience of their technoscientific colleagues.”

Perhaps, but only if we have lived on epistemology alone, and have kept ourselves blinkered from the histories of technology and business.  Shapin claims that the history of academic ideas supports two main views of “science”: the unfettered charistmatic genius and the dehumanized vocational organization man (following Max Weber).  I agree the tendency to resort to these notions can be found, but disagree that it is an accurate representation of ideas.  If scientists ply their skills at technology and are interested in money more than knowledge, it does not mean that heroism is gone; it means their hero might be Edison rather than Einstein.  If they are more interested in social goals than money, we might suppose that they identify with school teachers, social workers, and public attorneys rather than their scientific ur-fathers.

Does Shapin raise the tone by insisting how badly we need to lower it?  Does he exacerbate the rhetorical deficiencies of the term “science” by culling its rhetoric and claiming it represents the expression of ideas?  Is it possible that there are  more complex ideas about science, and more agreement between “the tower” and the ground about the diversity of what it means to be a scientist than is revealed in Shapin’s analysis?  Is it possible that extant ideas recognize, much more than here suggested, the moral discontinuities within the scientific life and the moral continuities between the scientific life and other forms of life?

I want to argue in the next book club entry that Shapin’s reliance on analysis of extracted commentary  cloaks historical ideas, and places a historiographical chimera, “the very idea” of the “moral equivalence of the scientist”, in their place.  It might be supposed that the recognition of continuities between science and the outside world supports the “moral equivalence of the scientist” standpoint, but my own understanding is that the idea that any coherent ideas about “the scientist” have existed is a figment of an imprecise rhetoric surrounding the word “science”, rather than an impoverished set of ideas.

We do require a stronger historiography of industrial research, particularly its practices, but there is no need for a paradigm shift in the idea of research to achieve it.  The vocabulary and sensibilities are readily borrowable from the histories of technology and business and culture for those (really quite a few) of us who are willing to take their eye off the literature on scientific epistemology.

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