Essay on the Norms of Science

These who violate these norms are tackled by the community members in their own way. Robert K. Merton (1942) identified four principal norms that constitute the “moral imperatives” of science. They are: (i) universalism, (ii) communalism, (iii) disinterestedness and (iv) organised skepticism.

Norm of Universalism:

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One of the basic norms of scientific institutions is universalism. This norm emphasises the universal nature of the scientific enterprise and its findings. This norm requires scientists to evaluate findings solely on their objective scientific merits rather than on such subjective criteria as the personal or social characteristics of the scientists who report them.

It means the truth of the scientific knowledge must be determined by the impersonal criteria of the scientific method, not by the criteria related to race, nationality, religion, social class, or political ideology. In brief, this norm suggests that research findings must be evaluated purely in terms of their scientific worth.

Norm of Communalism:

This norm of science refers to the “common ownership of scientific findings.” The principle behind communalism is that “scientific knowledge should not be the personal property of the discoverer.” This norm of “communism” or “communalism” has nothing to do with the economic or political systems for it only requires scientists to share results freely with one another in order to further the scientific discovery.

All science rests on a shared heritage of past discoveries and no individual can claim property rights over the outcome of research. Any new work of any scientist for that matter is only the continuation of what others have already done in that field.

This fact was acknowledged with all humility and humbleness by Sir Issac Newton when he reacted about his scientific achievements in the following manner. “If I have seen any farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The scientific findings are not the property of any individual although in some cases they may bear the name of the person who first published them as in “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution”, “Raman’s Effects”, “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity”, “Boyle’s Law”, “Newton’s Laws of Motion”, etc. These discoveries in actualities are common property. Technology, in contrast, can become private or corporate property through the use of patents.

Consequences: The Norm of Communalism Leads to Two Consequences

(i) This particular norm may, however, give rise to frequent conflicts over scientific priority, that is over who was the first to discover or publish a particular item of scientific knowledge. For example, there is the continual controversy over who discovered the differential calculus – Newton or Leibniz. But there are no limitations or restrictions on the use of the calculus.

(ii) Yet another consequence of the norm of common ownership is the norm of publication. The scientists are required to give full and open communication relating to their scientific findings in journals, and periodicals which are accessible to all. Theoretically, secrecy is thus, out of place in science.

Though theoretically scientific findings are required to be made public, they are not often done so. Scientific research is often conducted in the interests of national defence, or under the sponsorship of private firms that hope to profit from applications of the findings. The norms of common ownership and publication are often suspended. Situations like this have led to innumerable- conflicts in scientific circles.

Norm of Disinterestedness:

According to this norm, the scientists should be free from self-interests in their professional roles. Scientists are expected to act in the best interests of science. The scientist is not supposed to allow the desire for personal gain to influence the reporting and evaluation of results.

Further, fraud and irresponsible claims are outlawed. Scientific research is subject to the scrutiny of others. In fact, this is a part of the research itself. The results of the research are to be verified by others.

Scientists who falsify research results in order to make a name for themselves clearly violate this norm and threaten the credibility of scientists in general. Science is, in a sense, ‘self-policing’.

The norm of disinterestedness, however, does not imply that scientists cannot and should not hope to profit from their findings. On the contrary, scientists may legitimately hope that their work will be recognised and praised by the scientific community. There are many instances in which scientists have held lucrative patents for their discoveries.

Though he is entitled to obtain the reward in terms of recognition or in other approved means, his main interest should be to contribute to the sum of scientific knowledge. In other fields, for example, say in business or politics- it is almost expected that people will distort the facts to serve their own ends. But in the scientific community, the dishonest manipulation of the data or any other fraudulent practice is intolerable.

The norm of disinterestedness has also been violated. Some instances of scientific fraud have become notorious. Some states have taken advantage of the general public’s lack of scientific knowledge to spread scientific misinformation on such matters as racial purity as in the case of Nazi Germany.

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The norm of organised skepticism requires scientists to always question their results, to resist the temptation to conclude that any idea about how things work is once and for all proven to be true. There are no “sacred” areas in science that should not be critically investigated, even if political or religious dogma forbids it.

No theory, however ancient and respected, or new or old or revolutionary, can be uncritically accepted. “The skepticism of the scientific community is “organised” in the sense that is built into the scientific method itself and is binding on all members of the scientific community.”

The norms that are described above are well established aspects of modern science. These norms make science become clearly differentiated from other institutions such as religion or state. These norms have added dignity and prestige to the institution of science. But the emergence of these norms in the institution of science is only a recent phenomena.

Hence, science was not always viewed as a legitimate institution or a respectable occupation. Science in its early history was often regarded as a dangerous activity with the potential to threaten the existing social order. The repression of the scientific activities of Galileo by the Holy Court Inquisition is an example in this regard.

Obeyed:

Commenting on the norms of science, sociologist R.K. Merton says that as long as these norms are obeyed so long the scientific knowledge will accumulate. If norms are violated, scientific inquiry will suffer. But the bitter fact is that norms of science, like any other type of norms, are sometimes broken. Some examples in this regard are cited below.

1. The norm of universalism for example, was blatantly violated in Nazi Germany which attempted to distinguish between “Jewish” and “Aryan” science. This distinction is associated with racial discrimination which resulted in the suppression of the Jews.

2. The norm of communalism is often violated particularly when research is conducted for military purposes and commercial interests that hope to profit from a monopoly over some item of knowledge.

3. The norm of disinterestedness is also violated for the scientists may prove to be as greedy or ambitious as anyone else.

4. The norm of organised skepticism is also violated, probably more frequently than the other types of norms. Scientists after all, are human beings; they have their own private values and prejudices, and may be unwilling to give up old ideas or to accept new ones.