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Mertonian Norms Of Science

As Robert Merton discusses in “The Sociology of Science”, the Mertonian norms of science are communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Merton believes these four norms of science are influenced by society and play out in the consciousness of scientists. The concept of universalism and communism apply in most fields of science: genomics, Newtonian physics, or Darwinian Evolution is shared knowledge across nations, race, and class divides and seen as common “heritage”(1) or introductory concepts before more advanced study.  Disinterestedness and organized skepticism also traits shared by most scientists. For example, Galileo and Einstein both challenged and redefined commonly held scientific notions of the universe during their time and created lasting impacts in their fields. As a science major, the four Mertonian norms deeply resonated with my experiences.

In theory, all four Mertonian norms have a role in the study of computer science and physics. Most computer science curriculums contain the work of research done across several decades, which is similar to how knowledge is shared in Mertonian communism. Computer science is still a relatively new field compared to physics so its growth is accelerated with the growing open-source software, which is a term used to describe software whose code is openly shared. Anyone from any background should be able to access open-source software; this is a form of universalism. Physics also shares traits of universalism: the laws of physics taught in one country should not differ much from another country. Physics also exhibits Mertonian communism: most introductory courses contain knowledge shared and passed down from centuries ago like Newton’s Law of Motion. Both fields also exhibit organized skepticism because in order to conduct research, it is necessary for “the temporary suspension of judgement and the detached scrutiny of beliefs in terms of empirical and logical criteria”.(1) For the purpose of research, scientists in both fields must consider “potentialities”(1) to the extreme and suppress most of their socially accepted beliefs. In the case of Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, he disproved a commonly held notion of geocentrism or the earth being the center of the universe. In general, scientists exhibit a sense of disinterestedness or being able to juggle the fine line between their research interests and rigorous policing by society.  

Merton’s description of the four norms of science resonated with my experiences as a science major. When learning the fundamentals of a field in science, a student must retain a high degree of objectivity. There may be thousands of years of accumulated knowledge in subjects like math and only several decades worth of knowledge in subjects like computer science.  Scientist also have to carefully consider how their research might challenge established notions of the universe. It seems necessary that most science disciplines reflect the four norms of science in order to further the advancement of that field.

(1) Robert K Merton (1973) [1942], “The Normative Structure of Science”

The Impact Of The Race To Space During Global Wars

During the twentieth century, global wars transformed the perception of science and technology. As a result, many countries recognized the need for organizing science on a unified and national front in addition to integrating scientific research with war agendas. In “The Death of Certainty”, co-authors Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack refer to this phenomena as the rise of “Big Science”1.  Most scientific breakthroughs during the twentieth century came from “Big Science” or research funded by major research institutions and federal government as opposed to the contributions of individual scientists. Apart from the global wars, science became part of mainstream popular culture with the race to space. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union was one of the many events that led to the popularization of science.1 Although there were deadly consequences of “Big Science” in global wars, the perception of science shifted and was popularized in the race to space.

As opposed to the development of warfare that often shrouded in secrecy, the race to space was a very public and a less esoteric demonstration of the power of science. In “The Death of Certainty”, Ede and Cormack examine the application of science in weapon versus space research:

“Development of nuclear weapons was in many ways a more complex integration of research and the demands for a ‘useful’ final product….and was presented as so advanced…that it was accessible only to geniuses. The rocket race was, in contrast, a very public demonstration of scientific prowess”.1

In the interest of national security, it is logical for nuclear weapons research to be kept secret and understood by a select few “geniuses”.1 An example of nuclear power prowess is the United States using an atomic bomb to end WWII. In “Science in the Origins of the Cold War”, Naomi Oreskes describes the consequences of this nuclear warfare: “The world would find itself in a permanent state of ‘cold war’” and “not a way of life at all in any true sense”. 2 On the other hand, the “rocket race”1 between the Soviet Union and United States led NASA to become the world’s biggest supporter of scientific research. NASA programs helped change the image of science from a destructive entity to an “adventurous and glamorous”1 field. Science was also made accessible to the general public by television news announcer Walter Cronkite who served as NASA’s voice and image.

As opposed to being a purely lethal entity, the race to space improved the reputation of science. In the context of space exploration, science was seen as a more glamorous and adventurous field. This new perception of science was fueled by NASA programming and Sputnik, which was launched by the Soviet Union. Although scientific interests within the Soviet Union, United States, and other countries during the twentieth century aligned strongly with their warfare needs, the pursuit of space exploration was perceived as a less destructive and exciting application of science.

“The Death of Certainty” and “1957: The Year the World Became a Planet,” in Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack, A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility, Second Edition(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), pp. 295–348.

Naomi Oreskes, “Science in the Origins of the Cold War” in Naomi Oreskes and John Krige (eds.), Science and Technology in the Global Cold War(Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014), 11–30.

The Interplay Between The Two Cultures

In The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow discusses the dichotomy between high literary and scientific cultures. Snow also explores two subcultures within the scientific community—applied vs pure sciences. As our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology, it is imperative to facilitate a stronger connection between these two cultures and subcultures in order to dissipate knowledge to the general public. Pure scientists and applied scientists need to work cooperatively to combat long-term environmental and society issues like as global warming, proper health care and treatment, etc. However, in order to communicate these solutions and scientific research to the general public, these scientists need to be able to effectively communicate. On the flip side, the general public needs to be scientifically literate in order to understand the scientists and the underlying scientific concepts that affect modern life.

While discussing the two cultures, Snow mentions the intensiveness and often abstractness of scientific arguments. An essay written for a science course (chemistry, physics, mathematics) is more concise in length and difficult to argue against compared to an essay written in an English course. Snow explores this difference in his book:

“[Scientists] have their own culture, intensive, rigorous, and constantly in action. This culture contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than literary persons’ arguments”1

A mathematical proof is analogous to an essay. The goal is often to produce the most elegant and concise set of equations that leads to a final output. Proofs require “rigorous” argumentation and a higher level of knowledge, often at an accumulative and “high conceptual level”. Depending on the topic, understanding the symbols and numerical concepts in a short proof (e.g. five lines) may take months or several years to fully understand. Literary works, on the other hand, require a different set of analytical skills. The goal of a literary essay will be to convince someone of something. Like writing a good proof, writing literary essays can take years to master, but it is a lot easier to argue against a literary essay than it is to argue against mathematical proof. In Snow’s quote above, I believe he alludes to how scientific arguments are more objective than rigorous compared to literary arguments, resulting in a big divide between the two cultures. 

Despite the differences between literary and scientific culture explored by Snow, it is clear that we need to bridge the two cultures in the coming decades. Having both scientific and literary knowledge is required to become an informed and well-rounded citizen and human being. Asking a specialized scientist “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”1 is as condescending as having that scientist asking a literary scholar if he or she could explain the laws of thermodynamics. Modern technological interfaces would not exist without the help of artists, engineers (applied scientists), and and PhD students (pure scientists). Additionally, communicating these technologies to users requires communication, writing, and presentation skills. The world is becoming more interdisciplinary and specialization in only culture or field is not always necessary. Instead, a baseline understanding of the both cultures should be required.

1C.P Snow. The Two Cultures. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

A Lesson From Frankenstein

One message conveyed by Frankenstein is the danger that lies with considering the negative consequences of science and technology after-the-fact, instead of before. More generally speaking, when people neglect to consider the potential negative impacts of their actions, it is a form of willful ignorance. On the other hand, being risk-averse is tricky because predicting the future with complete accuracy is impossible. Although Frankenstein was written in 1818, the unintended effects of science and technology still plague society today.

In chapter three, a chemistry professor M. Waldman encourages Victor to pursue a broad education, which inspires Victor to gain knowledge on the secret of life and eventually create Frankenstein. I see a parallel in the often well-intended interests of people in scientific fields and the encouraging relationship between M. Waldman and Victor. Google started as a project by two PhD students with the goal of analyzing the relationships among websites.1 Yet, Google’s use of user’s privacy data in the last decade has lead to controversy about its “freemium” model.2 In order for Google to adequately fund its business operations, many critics have asked if it is moral to sell customers’ private data. It is a difficult question to answer because on the other hand, Google provides a host of free services that many educational institutions and their students benefit from. Much like Victor’s creation of Frankenstein, Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s creation of Google has sparked many issues regarding the ethics behind their technology. It is unlikely that Victor and the creators of Google could accurately predict the long-term impacts of their creation. However, some level of risk estimation is not impossible; Victor could have considered what to do if Frankenstein misbehaved and the creators of Google could have considered other ways to become a profitable business without data infringement.

“Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.”3

The novel also address the shortfalls of creating Frankenstein and in a broader sense, the negative impacts of science and technology in a cynical and destructive manner. In the above quote, Robert Walton recounts Victor’s warning on the dangers on ambition by “[seeking] happiness in tranquility”. In the context of the novel, this disposition is sympathetic to Victor’s character and his experiences creating Frankenstein. However, when placed in the context of modern science, this disposition will lead to laziness and further destruction. This quote sheds light on the cynical side of humans in face of immense scientific and technological discoveries. Many people today are like Victor and feel overwhelmed and defeated by the consequences of science. With global warming, for example, our society is divided on how to deal with high greenhouse emissions. Some people are indifferent and are not proactive about lowering their carbon footprint. As a result, these people are living in “tranquility” and following the negligent advice of Victor.

“From The Garage To The Googleplex,” Google, accessed September 24, 2018.  https://www.google.com/about/our-story/

Freemium is any product that provides a service for free while additional services can be purchased for money.

3 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818.

Contextualizing The Scientific Revolution

The commonly conceived notion of the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the tension between modern discoveries and methodologies against ancient traditions and practices. Many introductory science courses reflect on the contributions of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. Their roles in establishing the distinction between religion and antiquated modes of thought and the natural sciences are no doubt, substantial. Yet, these select narratives are limited in scope and do not reflect the broader political, religious, and cultural factors affecting scientific progress. In The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin presents a broader context by discussing commonly undisclosed factors that shape the Revolution.

One reason why the Scientific Revolution is misconceived is due to the brevity in which students learn about the history of science. Courses typically have one or two days to go over these concepts, which glosses over two centuries worth of history. It is only in advanced coursework or independent study focusing on the Scientific Revolution that students can engage in a deeper level of analysis and inquiry. As a result, students that do not inquire about the history of science do not get a broader and deeper understanding of the myriad of contributing factors.

In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon believed there was a necessary to create a “catalog…of all the effects that could be observed in nature” (85), which is similar to how modern scientific organizations and standards operate today. Shapin argues the purpose of these catalogs was to provide a “register of fact…to provide the secure foundations of natural philosophy” (90). The metric system can be considered a modern example of a catalog as it is an internationally adopted decimal system of measurement used in all facets of life. Using the metric prefix system for weights, shipments of goods can be measured in a standard unit, kilogram instead of constantly converting between units. Another example is the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology (IEEE), which has established standards for software and research development life-cycles. Many research facilities, universities, and companies adhere to the IEEE standards today. In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon understood the need for these catalogs, which have manifested in modern scientific organizations and standards.

Against most preconceived notions of the Scientific Revolution, modern science emerged under the influence of various intellectual and societal factors. As Shapin describes, the contributions of religion,  philosophy, and naturalism were additional factors affecting the development of scientific inquiry. Legacies of the Scientific Revolution are still apparent today in the form of internationally recognized scientific organizations and standards. Despite the importance of the Scientific Revolution, not every person will dig deeper into its complex history. Most people blindly accept and take for granted the science and technologies they depend on everyday.

Shapin, Steve. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Deeply Understanding Scientific Paradigms

In 1962,  Thomas Kuhn publishes his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions where he discusses the history of science. He introduces the concept of paradigms in science as 

“practices that define a scientific discipline at certain point in time” (14).1

In other words, paradigms are commonly accepted views or theories about a discipline and the conventions that dictate its research. There are paradigms in all disciplines, like physics with Newton’s Theory of Motion and Mechanics or biology with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. In order to learn what science or technology is, it is becoming increasingly vital to experiment in order to deeply understand how certain paradigms come into existence.

It is also possible that disciplines experience paradigm shifts, which Kuhn considers to be the basis of the scientific revolution. Across time and disciplines, there have been fundamental changes in the underlying assumptions or research approaches. When David Nye, the author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With explains tools in human history,  it is similar to the concept of a paradigm shift:

“[tools] are part of systems of mean-ing, and they express larger sequences of actions and ideas. Ultimately, the meaning of a tool is inseparable from the stories that surround it” (2-3). 2 

The “stories” and “larger sequence of actions and ideas” alludes to the evolution of meaning and usage of tools over time. Initially, tools were for capturing and domesticating animals, creating fires, and building shelters, but evolved to also become a means of murder and warfare. The history of tools can be thought of as a primitive example of a paradigm shift because there was a shift in how tools were used, from basic survive to warfare. 

In order to deeply understand the paradigms of science and technology, experimentation is key. Experimenting, however, takes various forms depending on the discipline. In physics, for example, it can involve highly specialized scientific instruments in order to derive Earth’s gravitational acceleration. In computer science, it can involve learning Swift, a computer programming language to develop a social networking mobile application. In these experiments, the experimenter does not take paradigms of science at face value, but rather more deeply understand how those concepts or technologies came to be. Gravitational acceleration is not simply 9.8m/s, its value fits within the framework of a universally applicable law known as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Any mobile application does not work via magic, there are complex layers of programming languages and unique software architectures that create an working mobile application. In other words, in order to learn about science and technology, there needs to be deep inquiry on the accepted paradigms of science, not just blind acceptance.

1 Lijing Jiang, “Understanding S, T & S” (presentation, ST112 Course, Waterville, ME, September 10, 2018).
2 David Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (The MIT Press, 2007), 1–16.

Past, Present, and Future of Communication Tools

After interning as a Software Engineer, it has become  imperative to reflect on intended and unintended side effects of the software industry. From using a popular cloud-based communication platform to an email service for work, the effects of software can be intentional, but also unpredictable.

Slack is a cloud-based platform for communication and collaboration within organizations and has been adopted by many technology companies. As an avid user, I find Slack pleasant, easy to use, and very reliable in terms of performance to communicate with members of my company. However, many users of Slack may not know that the idea for the platform resulted from developing a games application (Glitch). The founder of Slack, Stewart Butterfield realized how problematic it was to communicate within the organization and decided there was an opportunity to develop a solution. Thus, while trying to develop one product (games application), Butterfield realized there was a greater need for another product and pivoted.

“This is perhaps the most beautiful time in human history; it is really pregnant with all kinds of creative possibilities made possible by science and technology which now constitute the slave of man – if man is not enslaved by it.”  —Jonas Salk

Slack’s founding story—trying to develop an application for one purpose and then stumbling upon another more pressing problem to solve—is not uncommon. This is how many of the modern technological companies were found, which alludes to Jonas Salk’s quote above. He starts out with a positive tone, insisting our time now in history is “pregnant” and abundant with new innovative technologies. This is accurate because our current technological ecosystem provide an array of communication tools like Slack, Facebook Messenger, Gmail, etc to chose from. Salk, however ends the quote insidiously by suggesting although technology has simplified our day-to-day lives, it has in some ways enslaved us. This negative effect of technology is also accurate as workers are enticed to work additional hours. Tools like Gmail or Slack can be frequently checked for new emails or messages from work.

The ability to reach any employee at any second of the day is a powerful tool for companies. Any problem that arises can be directly communicated to the person and ideally taken care of at that moment. Obviously, this can become exhausting for employees. A 2008 Pew Internet & American Life Project report found that 50% of U.S. employees who use e-mail on the job check their work e-mail on weekends and 34% also so do while on vacation. A multitude of companies have been sued for this matter, expecting employees to reply to emails, like T-Mobile and Version.

While an abundance of tools have emerged with the intent of providing a simple and reliable communication platform, their long-term effects have plagued workers. Slack emerged from developing a games application and realizing the greater need for easy communication. However, companies that adopt Slack and other similar communication platforms may expect their employees to be responsive 24/7. The rise of communication platforms is two fold: accessible and easy communication channels, but also overworked, burned-out, and dissatisfied employees.




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