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Which Scientist Can You Trust?

There can be little doubt that, at least in some areas of science, particularly biology and information technology, entrepreneurial science will grow in size and, possibly, significance. Indeed Shapin interviews a surprising number of young scientists who are turned off by the prospect of the academy and are eager to join the supposedly more freewheeling world of small biotech or Internet firms. Whatever one thinks of these developments, there can be no question that the practice of American science has been transformed radically.


As the role of the scientist evolved, so too did the public’s perception of the scientist’s moral status. Early scientists, in the popular view, were not so much salaried members of a professional class as priests of nature. These priests, unlike the more familiar variety, studied the book of nature, not scripture, but both books were understood to have the same author. Not surprisingly, premodern scientists often suggested that the study of natural phenomena was ennobling. As Joseph Priestly, the eighteenth-century chemist and theologian who discovered oxygen, put it, the “contemplation of the works of God should give a sublimity to [the scientist’s] virtue, should expand his benevolence, extinguish every thing mean, base and selfish in [his] nature.” It followed easily that the scientist had a special moral, and perhaps even political, competence. Science was a calling and those who answered the call were different—and better.

This idea now seems quixotic. Indeed by World War II it was waning. A number of writers, as different as Robert K. Merton and H.L. Mencken, began to suggest that scientists were, morally, no better or worse than anyone else.3 This idea of moral equivalence between scientists and nonscientists ultimately became the new orthodoxy. As Shapin puts it, it appeared to many that

there were no just grounds in the nature of science—properly understood—or in the make-up of the scientist—properly understood—to expect expertise in the natural order to translate into virtue in the moral order.

One of Shapin’s more interesting tasks is to trace the reasons for the rise of this view of moral equivalence of scientists and other people (whether or not that view is correct). Perhaps the most obvious cause was World War II itself and, in particular, the scientists’ role in bringing the war to a close at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever one thought of the legitimacy of the use of atomic weapons, there could be no doubt that scientists appeared considerably less priestly afterward. (Ironically, the same event that ultimately led to the injection of vast quantities of cash into American science simultaneously helped rob scientists of their exalted moral status.)

More surprisingly, Shapin shows that the idea that scientists are like everyone else resulted partly from a deliberate propaganda campaign. During the cold war, American policymakers grew concerned about a shortage of scientists needed to combat communism. Unfortunately, several studies revealed that the public viewed the scientist as a creature apart. He was a paragon, an eccentric; he was contemplative and far too austere. Recognizing that this image jeopardized the recruitment of young people into science, a kind of marketing blitz began. As Shapin explains:

Leading spokespersons of government, industry, and the universities took it upon themselves to specify the ordinariness of the scientist and, therefore, the attractiveness of the scientific career to those who felt themselves to be neither geniuses nor morally special.

Time and Life magazines also chimed in, running pieces in the late 1950s and early 1960s that emphasized the unremarkable character of the scientist.

Shapin himself seems to have some doubts about the moral equivalence thesis (mightn’t scientists be morally special after all?). But this could reflect his relative neglect of one of the more obvious reasons for the rise of that thesis. During the twentieth century, it became painfully clear that scientists were capable of behavior that ranged from the dishonorable to the heinous. Many scientists were, for instance, complicit in promoting false theories or in performing unethical and sometimes barbarous science under Nazi and Soviet rule.4 While one might argue that Shapin isn’t concerned with research under dictatorships or that the scientists involved sometimes labored at the point of a gun, the picture in Western democracies wasn’t entirely rosy either. There, success with physical phenomena fed hubris among some scientists about their ability to rethink social and political arrangements. The result was a proliferation of utopian schemes from both the left and right, featuring everything from eugenics to fascism to scientifically planned economies.

The thinking public could hardly fail to notice that scientists backed some bad ideas. To pick only on evolutionary genetics, my own specialty, Sir Ronald Fisher participated in the Eugenics Society, which, in the early 1930s, fought for eugenic sterilization in the United Kingdom. And J.B.S. Haldane, who announced in 1938 that Lenin was the “greatest man of his time,” would, as late as 1962, consider Stalin “a very great man who did a very good job.”

More recently, we have heard seemingly endless tales of unscrupulous behavior by scientists working at major corporations. As I write, the newspapers report that pharmaceutical company–sponsored studies of new drugs often go unpublished if they reveal the drugs to be ineffective or to have serious side effects, leaving a highly biased record of research. However widespread such problems may be—and far worse clearly occurs—the phrase “priests of nature” doesn’t spring to mind when most of us think of Big Pharma.5

Taking all this into account, the public’s demotion of scientists’ moral status was unsurprising and perhaps even charitable.


Shapin sees the morality of scientists as part of a larger issue: the extent to which the personal qualities of scientists matter in the practice of science. His concern here derives from the claims about modern society of Max Weber and his disciples. These men maintained that one mark of the modern was a decrease in the significance of the personal and familiar and an increase in the significance of the impersonal and bureaucratic. But when it comes to that most characteristic modern activity—science —Shapin isn’t so sure. Instead, he concludes that personal qualities like virtue, trust, reliability, and familiarity continue to matter in science, perhaps more than ever.

While the Weberian account faced some difficulties with industrial science, Shapin seems to think it’s most clearly contradicted by contemporary entrepreneurial science. As Shapin watched Internet and biotech entrepreneurs pitching their cases to venture capitalists, a pattern emerged. More than anything, venture capitalists weigh the personal qualities of the scientists that appear before them: their reliability, honesty, and creativity. As Shapin puts it, “judgment in these worlds of leading-edge technoscience and finance often implicates knowledge of the virtues of familiar people. People and their virtues matter. ” Shapin connects this reliance on personal virtue to the “radical uncertainty” of scientific research. The outcome of research is unknowable a priori and thus all one can sensibly do is back the best person, not a particular project.

This all seems right to me, if somewhat unsurprising. Of course science isn’t a faceless bureaucracy. Any working scientist will, for example, believe new and surprising results far more readily when they derive from a colleague known to be reliable, or cautious, or immune to the seductions of sudden fame. This doesn’t mean that this colleague is necessarily admirable in his or her private life; he or she may even treat their spouse shamefully. It means only that scientists weigh relevant (and known) personal qualities when they weigh scientific claims.6

Though generally sound, Shapin’s discussion is in some ways unsatisfying. For one thing, he draws his main evidence for the role of the personal from the interaction of venture capitalists with entrepreneurs, an interaction that has more to do with investing than with science. I doubt many have argued that investors should disregard the personal attributes of those to whom they hand large sums of money. Also, Shapin’s discussion of industrial science mostly breaks off around the middle of the twentieth century. Is there any reason to believe that personal qualities still matter much in such large bureaucracies, the locus of much scientific research in America? Is research at Pfizer really shaped by the personal virtues of its scientists?

More important, Shapin sometimes blurs his discussion of the personal versus bureaucratic with his discussion of moral equivalence versus moral superiority. He writes, for example, that it’s now commonly believed that “scientists are morally no different from anyone else, and, more generally, that the ‘personal equation’ has been eliminated from the scenes in which powerful technoscientific knowledge is produced.” But these are, at least in principle, separate matters. It can both be true that the personal qualities of scientists, including their moral attributes, matter in many ways and situations and also that scientists, on average, are no better or worse than anyone else. Indeed, in my experience, both are true. Shapin doesn’t deny this but he doesn’t emphasize it either.

Finally, one other problem runs through The Scientific Life. While Shapin correctly sees that science has grown far more heterogeneous over the last century (it’s now thoroughly academic, industrial, and entrepreneurial), he at times seems so taken with this heterogeneity that he loses sight of any coherent entity that can be sensibly called science or even technoscience. Many of the firms initially funded by venture capital, for instance, are engaged in science in only the most superficial way. (Shapin at one point mentions Facebook and eBay.7) Unfortunately, this problem may lead Shapin to mislocate the center of gravity of science. Matters here depend partly on how one assesses the significance of scientific research. Does it depend on the number of jobs in the academy as opposed to the number in industry, or on the amount of dollars invested, or on the importance of the scientific findings themselves?

Many more thousands of scientists may work in corporate than in academic settings; and yet, in many disciplines, most fundamental insights might still derive from the academy. Internet firms may employ thousands of researchers and make billions of dollars, but the key idea of a universal computing machine—the idea that made all such enterprises possible—originated with Alan Turing, working at King’s College, Cambridge. Similarly, a thousand biotech firms may produce dozens of useful drugs but one of the key breakthroughs that allowed at least some of these ventures, the unraveling of the structure of DNA, came from James Watson and Francis Crick, working at Cambridge. (And many innovations marketed by drug companies originally were the products of university laboratories.) While there can be no doubt that the figure of the independent academic scientist has been overly romanticized, when it comes to truly transformational science, it’s at least possible that the lone wolf mythology isn’t entirely mythological.

But it would be unfair to end on this note. Shapin’s book is a major contribution to a fascinating topic. And like many major contributions, its significance lies partly in the new questions it asks—when and why, for example, did people start thinking that scientists are like everyone else?—and in the new places it looks for answers—in the laboratories of chemical companies. Shapin may not be doing a conventional history of the “scientific life,” but what he has done is both novel and provocative.

  1. 3

    Shapin doesn’t mention it, but Mencken spoke from experience. He was a friend of Raymond Pearl, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University and an important early student of the biology of aging. Mencken and Pearl were members of the Saturday Night Club, an informal group that enjoyed a reputation for drunken excess.

  2. 4

    If we consider only the Nazis, the monstrous behavior of many German geneticists, anthropologists, and physicians is documented in essays collected in Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, edited by Robert Proctor (Harvard University Press, 1988), and Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, edited by Susan D. Bachrach and Dieter Kuntz (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Univeristy of North Carolina Press, 2004). Daniel J. Kevles’s In the Name of Eugenics (Knopf, 1985) provides the classic history of the rise of eugenic thought generally, including its reception and development in Nazi Germany.

  3. 5

    Until several months ago, the federal government required registration of commercial drugs trials only at the beginning of a trial; their outcomes needn’t be reported and many were not. This almost certainly led to a skewed publication record in which positive drug effects were reported but unwelcome side effects were not (see Robert Lee Hotz, “What You Don’t Know About a Drug Can Hurt You,” TheWall Street Journal, December 12, 2008). For more on the often-alarming behavior of pharmaceutical companies and the scientists they employ, see Marcia Angell, “The Truth About the Drug Companies,” The New York Review, July 15, 2004; Arnold S. Relman and Marcia Angell, “America’s Other Drug Problem,” The New Republic, December 16, 2002; and Marcia Angell’s recent review, ” Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption,” The New York Review, January 15, 2009.

  4. 6

    As Shapin notes, this role of the personal in research in no way undermines the objectivity of science. That certain scientists hit a target more reliably than others do cannot be taken to justify postmodernist doubts about the existence of targets.

  5. 7

    Shapin is aware of, and wrestles with, this problem. (This is also, of course, why he prefers the more inclusive term “technoscience.”) And I certainly agree that what we mean by science or technoscience shouldn’t be too narrowly or dogmatically construed. But Shapin’s story is about research. And while the mid-twentieth-century industrial firms he discusses were clearly in the business of research, some of the venture capital–funded firms he mentions do not appear to be.

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