In an earlier post, I described an ideal of the tribe of science that the focus of scientific discourse should be squarely on the content — the hypotheses scientists are working with, the empirical data they have amassed, the experimental strategies they have developed for getting more information about our world — rather than on the particular details of the people involved in this discourse. This ideal is what sociologist of science Robert K. Merton* described as the “norm of universalism”.
Ideals, being ideals, can be hard to live up to. Anonymous peer review of scientific journal articles notwithstanding, there are conversations in the tribe of science where it seems to matter a lot who is talking, not just what she’s saying about the science. Some scientists were trained by pioneers in their fields, or hired to work in prestigious and well-funded university departments. Some have published surprising results that have set in motion major changes in the scientific understanding of a particular phenomenon, or have won Nobel Prizes.
But there’s a peculiar consequence of the idea that scientists are all in the knowledge-buiding trenches together, focused on the common task rather than on self-agrandizement.
When scientists are happily ensconced in the tribe of science, very few of them take themselves to be stars. But when the larger society, made up mostly of non-scientists, encounters a scientist — any scientist — that larger society might take him to be a star.
Merton touched on this issue when he described another norm of the tribe of science, disinterestedness. One way to think about the norm of disinterestedness is that scientists aren’t doing science primarily to get the big bucks, or fame, or attractive dates. Merton’s description of this community value is a bit more subtle. He notes that disinterestedness is different from altruism, and that scientists needn’t be saints.
*Robert K. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press (1979), 267-278.
Self agrandizement and name counting are two big problems of SciRes