It’s like getting married

Barbara Herrnstein Smith

  • The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation by Steven Shapin
    Chicago, 468 pp, £15.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 75024 8

The practices of science, it appears, are increasingly industrial in location, corporate in organisation, and product and profit-minded in motivation. In the eyes of various commentators, these trends represent an obviously undesirable state of affairs: inhospitable to the genuine scientific vocation, dispiriting for the scientists involved and seriously at odds with the sustaining norms of science itself. But how well do such commentators, or any of us outside that world, know what industrial-corporate-commercial science is really like? Can we be sure that research conducted under such sponsorship is so different from academic research – and necessarily worse? Is an orientation towards marketable products and monetary profit inherently incompatible with the characteristic motives, satisfactions and personalities of scientists? And what basis is there, anyway, for our notions of either the character of scientists or the nature of ‘science itself’? In posing these questions and seeking to answer them, Steven Shapin has produced a work of exceptional originality, power and significance. He has also given readers much to chew over in regard to contemporary developments and perennial issues.

The Scientific Life departs along several lines from the more strictly historical enterprises of Shapin’s earlier studies, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (1985), co-authored with Simon Schaffer, and A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in 17th-Century England (1994). Those detailed, in what were historiographically innovative and sometimes epistemologically disruptive ways, the social and political conditions of the rise of experimental science in 17th-century England. Here Shapin offers what he describes as a sociologically inflected ‘cultural history’. It is actually two such histories. One is a genealogical account of Western conceptions of the scientist from the early modern period to our own. The other is an often on-site report of the changing practices of science in the United States since the early 20th century. Shapin frames these accounts with an introductory chapter and an epilogue, each titled ‘The Way We Live Now’. For Trollope, the phrase served as an ironic comment on the world of financial chicanery and personal corruption that he saw in England and depicted in his novel. For Shapin, it still serves as an ironic comment, but its objects are more ambiguous. ‘The way we live now’ refers most obviously to how science operates in the high-tech, high-finance world to which it has increasingly moved, at least in the US. But the irony seems to be at least partly at the expense of those who think we do or should or might live some other way.

At its most heroic, science has been seen as a quasi-divine calling pursued by men of monastic virtue. At its least heroic, increasingly since the end of World War Two, it has been seen as a job like any other pursued by men (and some women) no better than they should be. Shapin emphasises that the story of that transformation is not a linear one, a simple matter of decline and fall. On the contrary, the changes, though immense, were always differentiated by particular cultural sectors, occasions and circumstances. They were also assessed in very different ways from different perspectives.

Economic and political developments from the 17th century to the 19th strongly affected both the structure of scientific careers and public perceptions of science. In the early modern period there were very few state-supported scientists. Most were amateurs, many were clerics. Men of science were seen as uniquely virtuous, given to stoic fortitude and self-denial in the service of truth, not material gain, public fame or political power. By the 18th century, the centralised nation-state gave systematic institutional forms to the mobilisation of technical expertise. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a vast increase in the number of scientifically trained people employed as experts in commercial, military and governmental settings. Gentlemen amateurs survived (Darwin was one) but as the pursuit of science was increasingly integrated into the structures of power and profit, the public’s appreciation of science was itself transformed – for better and for worse.

The notion that scientists are ordinary people – what Shapin terms ‘the moral equivalence of the scientist’ – was asserted more and more frequently over the course of the 20th century and, after World War Two, became a commonplace. With the show of power represented by the atom bomb, scientific knowledge received greater public respect, but a different sort from that won by such 19th and early 20th-century icons as Pasteur or Einstein. In the United States, while scientists were increasingly represented in popular culture as frightening, unfeeling experts, the government was inclined to view them as too sophisticated, too independent-minded or too ethically sensitive (and therefore presumptively ‘pinko’) to be trusted. Under these conditions, the idea that ‘scientists are human, too’ was invoked as a reassuring, counter-stigmatising self-defence.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in