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Merton on the Reception of Watson’s The Double Helix September 15, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For many decades now, various critics have supposed that the relations between science and society suffer because of the prevalence of an unrealistic view of science as something that is abstract and dehumanized. This supposition licenses the critics to deploy therapeutically realistic images of science to deliver their audience from their false idols into a state of mature understanding.

In his paper, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” Science 183 (1974): 1164-1172, Stephen Brush supposed the history of science could play just such a “subversive” role in science education. At that same time, according to some stories, the history of science itself had to be rescued from ne’er-do-well myth-spinners working as philosophers of science, Mertonian sociologists, and, of course, American scientists justifying their work to society and Congress.

All of this overlooks the fact that our entire society had already been freed from its illusions by James Watson’s best-selling 1968 memoir, The Double Helix.

So bracing was this tale of vicious scientific competition that, given how damaging the reality of scientific life is supposed to have been to more abstract theories of science, it is now perhaps difficult to imagine how it could not have reduced someone like Robert Merton to clawing at the ground, crying out, “My norms! My precious norms!”

I was thus delighted to discover Merton’s response to the press reaction to The Double Helix: “Behavior Patterns of Scientists,” American Scientist 57 (1969): 1-23. He took a skeptical view of what was touted as the book’s central revelation (1-2):

Widely and diversely reviewed in journals of science and parascience, it has been discussed in scores of monthlies, weeklies, and daily newspapers, from the London Times to the Erie, Pa. Times, from the Village Voice to the Wall St. Journal (which, aptly enough, manages to give a faintly financial slant to the book, concluding that, ‘Watson, in the long run, may have done science a favor. In these days when the public is asked to allocate billions for scientific research, it’s of some comfort to know that the spenders are human.’)

To judge from the popular reviews, that indeed was taken to be the essential message of the book: scientists are human, after all. This phrase, it turns out, does not mean that scientists can be assigned at long last to the species Homo Sapiens. Many Americans and some Englishmen were apparently prepared to entertain that serviceable hypothesis even before the appearance of The Double Helix. Evidently, what is meant by the Watson-induced thought that scientists too are human is that scientists are all too human; that, in the succinct, jaundiced words of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, ‘they can be boastful, jealous, garrulous, violent, [and even] stupid ….’

Merton, however, was not so much concerned that scientists were being portrayed unfavorably, as that the revelation was of something that ought to have been plain to see. He suggested that a general failure to recognize this point might derive from an increasing division between the practice of science and its public facade, occasioned by science’s institutionalization (12-13):

That [The Double Helix] should have created the stir that it did testifies that, with the institutionalization of science, the austere mores governing the public demeanor of scientists and the public evaluation of contemporaries have become more exacting rather than less. As a result, Watson’s little book, so restrained in substance and so mild in tone by comparison with the caustic and sometimes venomous language of, say, Galileo or Newton, violates the sentiments of the many oriented to these more exacting mores.

Merton was particularly worried that the concealment of the experience of science behind a public facade was creating the impression that the revelations attributed to The Double Helix were revelations about what science was becoming in the “highly competitive age” (3) of the mid-twentieth century, instead of something it had always been (22):

[Biologist Erwin] Chargaff is correct, I believe, in suggesting that the Watson memoir ‘may contribute to the much-needed demythologizing of modern science.’ But as I have tried to suggest, to put the accent on ‘modern science’ is only to displace the old myth with a new variant. In noting this, I am scarcely alone. Some practicing scientists, both before and after The Double Helix, have put aside the myth that competition for originality in science is alien to joy in discovery and that the drive for recognition should occasion self-contempt.

He allowed, there was “a certain plausibility to this view that the mores of science and the behavior of scientists must surely have changed in the recent past. For plainly, all the basic demographic, social, economic, political, and organizational parameters of science have acquired dramatically new values [3] … With all these profound changes, as any sociologist is apt to tell you if you give him half a chance, there must also be a new ethos of science abroad, a new set of values and institutionally patterned motives” (4).

Nevertheless, Merton was keen to point out that the historical record put paid to the idea that fierce competition was anything new. He blamed the past invisibility of this constant aspect of scientific work on “the pious biographers who, in sapless prose, convert indubitably great men of science into what Augustus de Morgan [1806-1871] once described as ‘monsters of perfection'” (2). Yet, so blatantly disingenuous were the biographers’ platitudes, that Merton could formulate an amusing “rule of thumb” to demonstrate their inability to avoid contradicting themselves on this point (13):

The rule is this: whenever that biography of autobiography of a scientist announces that he had little or no concern with priority, there is a reasonably good chance that not many pages later in the book, we shall find him deeply embroiled in one or another episode where priority is at issue….

The authoritative biography of that great psychiatrist of the Salpêtrière, [Jean-Martin] Charcot [1825-1893], states that, despite his many discoveries, he ‘never thought for a moment to claim priority or reward.’ Our rule of thumb leads us to expect what we find: some 30 pages later, there is a detailed account of Charcot insisting on having been first in recognizing exopthalmic goiter and a little later, emphatically affirming that he ‘would like to claim priority’ (the language is his) for the idea of isolating patients suffering from hysteria.

Of course, Merton had a stake in making this point about the centrality of priority struggles to science, because it addressed an argument he himself had been making — beginning with a footnote in his 1938 book Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England — indicating that priority disputes seemed a promising subject for historical and sociological study. By the late 1960s, Merton had developed a research program around the idea, and he was now confident in suggesting that, far from pathological, the struggle for priority had been integral to the conduct of science throughout its history. In fact, thanks to empirical research, he could now even suggest that recent science seemed to have a better control over the resulting conflicts than in previous centuries (10):

Among the multitude of multiple discoveries in the history of science, Elinor Barber and I have examined a sample of 264 in detail and have found, among other things, that there is a secular decline in the frequency with which multiples are an occasion for intense priority-conflicts. Of the 36 multiples before 1700 that we have examined, 92% were strenuously contested; the figure drops to 72% in the 18th century; remains at about the same level in the first half of the 19th century and declines to 59% in the second half, reaching the lowest level of 33% in the first half of this century. Perhaps the culture of science today is not as pathogenic as it once was.

For Merton, priority struggles were integral to the “competitive cooperation” that characterizes scientific work, which was, in turn, a part of the “ambivalence” of science. Scientific figures regretted priority disputes, yet they engaged in them constantly. Merton supposed that the “function of reassurance by recognition has a dependable basis in the social aspects of knowledge,” lending individuals confidence that their work had value for others, thus helping integrate scientists into a “common enterprise” (18-19).

Attentive readers should take note that the Mertonian program to describe the “ambivalence” of science had begun to concern itself with the successful construction of knowledge — an effort that later critics from SSK, proper, would suppose was antithetical to Mertonian sociology. Merton was also eager to distinguish how scientific work was done from the external image scientists presented of themselves — an argument Michael Mulkay would soon use to argue that Merton’s and his students’ work was afflicted by a basic unrealism.

While Merton was eager to ensure that The Double Helix did not replace one mythology of science with another, scholars following in the footsteps of the critiques of SSK and Mulkay would hold Merton’s work to have been representative of the same mythology that The Double Helix is supposed to have helped displace.

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