The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Robert K. Merton

Science and the Social Order [1]

Philosophy of Science, 5 (3)

July 1938, 321-337.

FORTY-THREE years ago Max Weber observed that “the belief in the value of scientific truth is not derived from nature but is a product of definite cultures.” [2]  We may now add: and this belief is readily transmuted into doubt or disbelief.  The persistent development of science occurs only in societies of a certain order, subject to a peculiar complex of tacit presuppositions and institutional constraints.  What is for us a normal phenomenon which demands no explanation and secures many ‘self-evident’ cultural values, has been in other times and still is in many places abnormal and infrequent.  The continuity of science requires the active participation of interested and capable persons in scientific pursuits.  This support of science is assured only by appropriate cultural conditions.  It is, then, important to examine those controls which motivate scientific careers, which select and give prestige to certain scientific disciplines and reject or blur others.  It will become evident that changes in institutional structure may curtail, modify or possibly prevent the pursuit of science. [3]

Hostility toward science may arise under at least two sets of

1. Read at the American Sociological Society Conference, December 1937.  The writer is indebted to Professor Read Bain, Professor Talcott Parsons, Dr. E. Y. Hartshorne and Dr. E. P. Hutchinson for their helpful suggestions.

2. Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tübingen, J. C. B. Mohr, 1922, 213; cf. P. A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, New York, American Book Co., 2937, esp. II, Chap. 2.

3. Cf. R. K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, Osiris History of Science Monographs, Bruges, 1938, Chap. XI.


conditions, although the concrete systems of values - humanitarian, economic, political, religious - upon which it is based may vary considerably.  The first involves the logical, though not necessarily correct, conclusion that the results or methods of science are inimical to the satisfaction of certain values.  The second consists largely of non-logical elements.  It rests upon the feeling of incompatibility between the sentiments embodied in the scientific ethos and those found in other institutions.  Whenever this feeling is challenged, it is rationalized.  Both sets of conditions underlie, in varying degrees, the current revolts against science.  It might be added that such reasoning and affective responses are also involved in the social approval of science.  But in these instances science is thought to facilitate the achievement of approved ends, and basic cultural values are fe1t to be congruent with those of science rather than emotionally inconsistent with them.  The concrete position of science in the modern world may be analyzed, then, as a resultant of two sets of contrary forces, approving and opposing science as a large-scale social activity.

Since the space at our disposal is limited, we must restrict our examination to a few conspicuous instances of the current re-evaluation of the social role of science, without implying that the anti-science movement is in any sense thus localized.  Much of what is said here can probably be applied to the cases of other countries. [4]

The situation in Germany since 1933 illustrates the ways in which logical and non-logical processes converge to modify or curtail scientific activity.  In part, the hampering of science is an unintended by-product of changes in political structure and nationalistic credo.  In accordance with the dogma of ‘race purity,’ practically all persons who do not meet the politically imposed criteria of ‘Aryan’ ancestry and of avowed sympathy with Nazi aims have been eliminated from universities and

4. This summary judgment will be tested in a monograph which the writer is preparing in collaboration with E. Y. Hartshorne.  This study will deal with the place of science in the modern world in terms of the analysis introduced in this paper.


scientific institutes. [5] Since these ‘outcastes’ include a considerable number of eminent scientists, one indirect consequence of the racialist purge is the weakening of science in Germany.

Implicit in this racialism is a belief in race defilement through actual or symbolic contact. [6]   Scientific research by those of unimpeachable ‘Aryan’ ancestry who collaborate with non-Aryans or who even accept their scientific theories is either restricted or proscribed.  A new racial-political category has been introduced to include these incorrigible Aryans: the category of ‘White Jews.’  The most prominent member of this new race is the Nobel Prize physicist, Werner Heisenberg, who has persisted in his declaration that Einstein’s theory of relativity constitutes an “obvious basis for further research.” [7]

In these instances, the sentiments of national and racial purity have clearly prevailed over utilitarian rationality.  The application of such criteria has led to a greater proportionate loss to the natural science and medical faculties in German universities than to the theological and juristic faculties, as E. Y. Hartshorne has found. [8]  In contrast, utilitarian considerations are foremost when it comes to official policies concerning the directions to be followed by scientific research.  Scientific work which promises direct practical benefit to the Nazi party or the Third Reich is

5. See Chapter III of E. Y. Hartshorne, The German Universities and National Socialism, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1937, on the ‘purge’ of the universities; cf. Volk und Werden, 5, 1937, 320-1 which refers to some of the new requirements for the doctorate.

6. This is one of many phases of the introduction of a caste system in Germany.  As R. M. Maclver has observed, “The idea of defilement is common in every caste system.”  Society, New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1937, 272.

7. Cf. the official organ of the SS, the Schwarze Korps, July 15, 1937, 2.  In this issue Johannes Stark, the president of the Physikalisch-Technischen Reichanstalt, urges elimination of such collaborations which still continue and protests the appointment of three university professors who have been ‘disciples’ of non-Aryans.  See also Hartshorne, op. cit., 112—3; Alfred Rosenberg, Wesen, Grundsätze und Ziele der Nationalsozialistischen Deutschen Arbeiterpartei, München: E. Boepple, 1933, 45 ff.; J. Stark, “Philipp Lenard als deutscher Naturforscher”, Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, 71 (1936), 106-111, where Heisenberg, Schrödinger, von Laue and Planck are castigated for not having divorced themselves from the ‘Jewish physics’ of Einstein.

8. The data upon which this statement is based will be published shortly by Dr. Hartshorne.


to be fostered above all, and research funds are to be re-allocated in accordance with this policy. [9]  The rector of Heidelberg University announces that “the question of the scientific significance (Wissenschaftlichkeit) of any knowledge is of quite secondary importance when compared with the question of its utility.” [10]

The general tone of anti-intellectualism, with its depreciation of the theorist and its glorification of the man of action, [11] may have long-run rather than immediate bearing upon the place of science in Germany.  For should these attitudes become fixed, the most gifted elements of the population may be expected to shun those intellectual disciplines which have thus become disreputable.  Even now, effects of this anti-theoretical attitude can be detected in the allocation of academic interests in the German universities. [12]

It would be misleading to suggest that the new German State has completely repudiated science and intellect.  The official attitudes toward science are clearly ambivalent and unstable.

9. Cf. Wissenschaft and Vierjahresplan, Reden anlässlich der Kundgebung des NSD-Dozentenbundes, January 18, 1937; Hartshorne, op. cit., 110 ff.; E. R. Jaensch, Zur Neugestaltung des deutschen Studentums and der Hochschule, Leipzig, J. A. Barth, 1937, esp. 57 ff.  In the field of history, for example, Walter Frank, the director of the Reichsinstituts für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands, “the first German scientific organization which has been created by the spirit of the national-socialistic revolution,” testifies that he is the last person to forego sympathy for the study of ancient history, “even that of foreign peoples,” but also points out that the funds previously granted the Archaeological Institute must be re-allocated to this new historical body which will “have the honor of writing the history of the National Socialist Revolution.”  See his Zukunft und Nation, Hamburg, Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1935, esp. 30 ff.

10. Ernst Krieck, Nationalpolitische Erziehung, Leipzig, Armanen Verlag, 1935 (19th Printing), 8.

11. The Nazi theoretician, Alfred Baeumler, writes: “Wenn ein Student heute es ablehnt, sich der politischen Norm zu unterstellen, es z. B ablehnt, an einem Arbeits- oder Wehrsportlager teilzunehmen, weil er damit Zeit für sein Studium versäume, dann zeigt er damit, dass er nichts von dem begriffen hat, was um ihn geschieht.  Seine Zeit kann er nur bei einem abstrakten, richtungslosen Studium versäumen.” Männerbund und Wissenschaft, Berlin, Junker & Dünnhaupt, 1934, 153.

12. Hartshorne, op. cit. 106, ff.; cf. Wissenschaft und Vierjahresplan, op. cit., 25-6, where it is stated that the present “breathing-spell in scientific productivity” is partly due to the fact that a considerable number of those who might have received scientific training have been recruited by the army.  Although this is a dubious explanation of the present situation, a prolonged deflection of interest from theoretical science will probably produce a decline in scientific achievements.


(For this reason, any statements concerning science in contemporary Germany are made under correction.)  On the one hand, the challenging scepticism of science interferes with the imposition of a new set of values which demand an unquestioning acquiescence.  But the new dictatorships must recognize, as did Hobbes who also argued that the State must be all or nothing, that science is power.  For military, economic and political reasons, theoretical science - to say nothing of its more respectable sibling, technology - cannot be safely discarded.  Experience has shown that the most esoteric researches have found important applications.  Unless utility and rationality are dismissed beyond recall, it cannot be forgotten that Clerk-Maxwell’s speculations on the ether led Hertz to the discovery which culminated in the wireless.  And indeed one Nazi spokesman remarks: “As the practice of today rests on the science of yesterday, so is the research of today the practice of tomorrow.” [13]  Emphasis on utility requires an unbanishable minimum of interest in science which can be enlisted in the service of the State and industry. [14]  At the same time, this emphasis leads to a limitation of research in pure science.

An analysis of the role of science in the Nazi state uncovers the following elements and processes.  The spread of domination by one segment of the social structure - the State - involves a demand for primary loyalty to it.  Scientists, as well as all others, are called upon to relinquish adherence to all institutional norms which, in the opinion of political authorities, conflict with those of the State. [15]  The norms of the scientific ethos must be sacrificed, insofar as they demand a repudiation of the politically imposed criteria of scientific validity or of scientific worth.  The expansion of political control thus introduces conflicting loyalties.  In this respect, the reactions of devout Catholics who

13. Professor Thiessen in Wissenschaft und Vierjahresplan, op. cit., 12.

14. For example, chemistry is highly prized because of its practical importance.  As Hitler put it, “we will carry on because we have the fanatic will to help ourselves and because in Germany we have the chemists and inventors who will fulfil our needs.”  Quoted in Wissenschaft und Vierjahresplan, op. cit., 6; et passim.

15. This is clearly put by Reichswissenschaftsminister Bernhard Rust, Das nationalsozialistische Deutschland und die Wissenschaft, Hamburg, Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1936, 1-22, esp. 21.


resist the efforts of the political authority to redefine the social structure, to encroach upon the preserves which are traditionally those of religion, are of the same order as the resistance of the scientist.  From the sociological point of view, the place of science in the totalitarian world is largely the same as that of all other institutions except the newly-dominant State.  The basic change consists in placing science in a new social context where it appears to compete at times with loyalty to the state.  Thus, cooperation with non-Aryans is redefined as a symbol of political disloyalty.  In a liberal order, the limitation of science does not arise in this fashion.  For in such structures, a substantial sphere of autonomy - varying in extent, to be sure - is enjoyed by non-political institutions.

The conflict between the totalitarian state and the scientist derives in part, then, from an incompatibility between the ethic of science and the new political code which is imposed upon all, irrespective of occupational creed.  The ethos of science [l6] involves the functionally necessary demand that theories or generalizations be evaluated in terms of their logical consistency and consonance with facts.  The political ethic would introduce the hitherto irrelevant criteria of the race or political creed of the theorist. [17]

16. Limitations of space forbid a thorough discussion of the concept of “ethos” in this connection.  Suffice it to say that ethos refers to an emotionally toned complex of rules, prescriptions, mores, beliefs, values and presuppositions which are held to be binding upon the scientist.  Some phases of this complex may be methodologically desirable, but observance of the rules is not dictated solely by methodological considerations.  The ethos of science, as every other social code, is sustained by the sentiments of those to whom it applies.  Transgression is curbed by internalized prohibitions and by disapproving emotional reactions which are mobilized by the supporters of the ethos.  Once given an effective ethos of this type, resentment, scorn and other attitudes of antipathy operate almost automatically to stabilize the existing structure.  This may be seen in the current resistance of scientists in Germany to marked modifications in the content of this ethos.  The ethos may be thought of as the “cultural” as distinct from the “civilizational” component in science.  Cf. the writer’s “Civilization and Culture,” Sociology and Social Research, 21, 1936, 103-113.

17. Cf. Baeumler, op. cit., 145.  Also Krieck (op. cit., 5-6), who states: “Nicht alles, was den Anspruch der Wissenschaftlichkeit erheben darf, liegt auf der gleichen Rang- und Wertebene; protestantische und katholische, französische und deutsche, germanische und jüdische, humanistische oder rassische Wissenschaft sind zunächst nur Möglichkeiten, noch nicht erfüllte oder gar gleichrangige Werte.  Die Entscheidung über den Wert der Wissenschaft fällt aus ihrer ‘Gegenwärtigkeit’, aus dem Grad ihrer Fruchtbarkeit, ihrer geschichtsbildenden Kraft...”


Modern science has considered the personal equation as a potential source of error and has evolved impersonal criteria for checking such error.  It is now called upon to assert that certain scientists, because of their extra-scientific affiliations, are a priori incapable of anything but spurious and false theories.  In some instances, scientists are required to accept the judgments of scientifically incompetent political leaders concerning matters of science.  But such politically advisable tactics run counter to the institutionalized norms of science.  These, however, are dismissed by the totalitarian state as ‘liberalistic’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘bourgeois’ prejudices, [18] inasmuch as they cannot be readily integrated with the campaign for an unquestioned political creed.

From a broader perspective, the conflict is a phase of institutional dynamics.  Science, which has acquired a considerable degree of autonomy and has evolved an institutional complex which engages the allegiance of scientists, now has both its traditional autonomy and its rules of the game - its ethos, in short - challenged by an external authority.  The sentiments embodied in the ethos of science - characterized by such terms as intellectual honesty, integrity, organized scepticism, disinterestedness, impersonality - are outraged by the set of new sentiments which the State would impose in the sphere of scientific research.  With a shift from the previous structure where limited loci of power are vested in the several fields of human activity to a structure where there is one centralized locus of authority over all phases of behavior, the representatives of each sphere act to resist such changes and to preserve the original structure of pluralistic authority.  Although it is customary to think of the scientist as a dispassionate, impersonal individual - and this is not inaccurate as far as his technical activity is concerned - it must be remembered that the scientist, in company with all other professional workers, has a large emotional investment in his way

18. Thus, says Ernst Krieck: “In the future, one will no more adopt the fiction of an enfeebled neutrality in science than in law, economy, the State or public life generally.  The method of science is indeed only a reflection of the method of government.” Nationalpolitische Erziehang, 6.  f. Baeumler, op. cit., 252; Frank, Zunft un  Nation, 10; and contrast with Max Weber’s “prejudice” that “Politik gehört nicht in den Hörsaal.”


of life, defined by the institutional norms which govern his activity.  The social stability of science can be ensured only if adequate defences are set up against changes imposed from outside the scientific fraternity itself.

This process of preserving institutional integrity and resisting new definitions of social structure which may interfere with the autonomy of science finds expression in yet another direction.  It is a basic assumption of modern science that scientific propositions “are invariant with respect to the individual” and group. [19]  But in a completely politicalized society - where as one Nazi theorist put it, “the universal meaning of the political is recognized” [20] - this assumption is impugned.  Scientific ‘findings’ are held to be merely the expression of race or class or nation. [21]  Insofar as these doctrines percolate to the laity, they invite a general distrust of science and a depreciation of the prestige of the scientist, whose discoveries appear arbitrary and fickle,  This variety of anti-intellectualism which threatens his social position is characteristically enough resisted by the scientist.  On the ideological front as well, totalitarianism entails a conflict with the traditional assumptions of modern science.

One sentiment which is assimilated by the scientist from the very outset of his training pertains to the purity of science.  Science must not suffer itself to become the handmaiden of theology or economy or state.  The function of this sentiment is likewise to preserve the autonomy of science.  For if such extra-scientific criteria of the value of science as presumable consonance with religious doctrines or economic utility or political appropriateness are adopted, science becomes acceptable only insofar as it meets these criteria.  In other words, as the ‘pure science

19. H. Levy, The Universe of Science, New York, Century Co., 1933, 189.

20. Baeumler, Münnerbund und Wissenschaft, 152.

21. It is of considerable interest that totalitarian theorists have adopted the radical relativistic doctrines of Wissenssoziologie as a political expedient for discrediting ‘liberal’ or ‘bourgeois’ or ‘non-Aryan’ science.  An exit from this cul-de-sac is provided by positing an Archimedean point: the infallibility of der Führer and his Volk.  (Cf. General Hermann Goering, Germany Reborn, London, Mathews & Marrot, 1934, 79)  Politically effective variations of the ‘relationism’ of Karl Mannheim (e.g. Ideology and Utopia) have been used for propagandistic purposes by such Nazi theorists as Walter Frank, Krieck, Rust, and Rosenberg.


sentiment’ is eliminated, science becomes subject to the direct control of other institutional agencies and its place in society becomes increasingly uncertain.  The persistent repudiation by scientists of the application of utilitarian norms to their work has as its chief function the avoidance of this danger, which is particularly marked at the present time.  A tacit recognition of this function may be the source of that possibly apocryphal toast at a dinner for scientists in Cambridge: To pure mathematics, and may it never be of any use to anybody!

The exaltation of pure science is thus seen to be a defence against the invasion of norms which limit directions of potential advance and threaten the stability and continuance of scientific research as a valued social activity.  Of course, the technological criterion of scientific achievement has also a positive social function for science.  The increasing comforts and conveniences deriving from technology and ultimately from science invite the social support of scientific research.  They also testify to the integrity of the scientist, since abstract and difficult theories which cannot be understood or evaluated by the laity are presumably ‘proved’ in a fashion which can be understood by all, i.e., through their technological applications.  Readiness to accept the authority of science rests, to a considerable extent, upon its daily demonstration of power.  Were it not for such indirect demonstrations, the continued social support of that science which is intellectually incomprehensible to the public would hardly be nourished on faith alone.

At the same time, this stress upon the purity of science has had other consequences which threaten rather than preserve the social esteem of science.  It is repeatedly urged that scientists should in their research ignore all considerations other than the advance of knowledge. [22]  Attention is to be focussed exclusively

22. For example, Pareto writes: “The quest for experimental uniformities is an end in itself.”  See a typical statement by George A. Lundberg. “It is not the business of a chemist who invents a high explosive to be influenced in his task by considerations as to whether his product will be used to blow up cathedrals or to build tunnels through the mountains.  Nor is it the business of the social scientist in arriving at laws of group behavior to permit himself to be influenced by considerations of how his conclusions will [coincide with existing notions, or what the effect of his findings on the social order will be.”  Trends in American Sociology, (edited by G. A. Lundberg, R. Bain and N. Anderson), New York, Harper, 1929, 404-5.  Compare the remarks of Read Bain on the “Scientist as Citizen,” Social Forces, 11, 1933, 412-15.]

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on the scientific significance of their work with no concern for the practical uses to which it may be put or for its social repercussions generally.  The customary justification of this tenet - which is partly rooted in fact [23] and which, in any event, has definite social functions, as we have just seen - holds that failure to adhere to this injunction will encumber research by increasing the possibility of bias and error.  But this methodological view overlooks the social results of such an attitude.  The objective consequences of this attitude have furnished a further basis of revolt against science; an incipient revolt which is found in virtually every society where science has reached a high stage of development.  Since the scientist does not or cannot control the direction in which his discoveries are applied, he becomes the subject of reproach and of more violent reactions insofar as these applications are disapproved by the agents of authority or by pressure groups.  The antipathy toward the technological products is projected toward science itself.  Thus, when newly discovered gases or explosives are applied as military instruments, chemistry as a whole is censured by those whose humanitarian sentiments are outraged.  Science is held largely responsible for endowing those engines of human destruction which, it is said, may plunge our civilization into everlasting night and confusion.  Or, to take another prominent instance, the rapid development of science and related technology has led to an implicitly anti-science movement by vested interests and by those whose sense of “economic justice” is offended.  The eminent Sir Josiah Stamp and a host of less illustrious folk have proposed a moratorium on invention and discovery, [24] in order that man may have

23. A neurological justification of this view is to be found in E. D. Adrian’s essay in Factors Determining Human Behavior, Harvard Tercentenary Publications, Cambridge, 1937, 9.  “For discriminative behavior… there must be some interest: yet if there is too much the behavior will cease to be discriminative.  Under intense emotional stress the behavior tends to conform to one of several stereotyped patterns.”

24. O course, this does not constitute a movement opposed to science as such.  Moreover, the destruction of machinery by labor and the suppression of inventions by capital [have also occurred in the past.  Cf. R. K. Merton, “Fluctuations in the Rate of Industrial Invention,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 49, 1935, 464 ff.  But this movement mobilizes the opinion that science is to be held strictly accountable for its social effects.  Sir Josiah Stamp’s suggestion may be found in his address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Aberdeen, 6 Sept. 1934.  Such moratoria have also been proposed by M. Caillaux (cf. John Strachey, The Coming Struggle for Power, New York, 1934, 283), by H. W. Sumners in the U. S. House of Representatives, and by many others.  In terms of current humanitarian, social and economic criteria, some of the products of science are more pernicious than beneficial.  This evaluation may destroy the rationale of scientific work.  As one scientist pathetically put it: if the man of science must be apologetic for his work, I have wasted my life. Cf. ¶The Frustration of Science (ed. by F. Soddy), New York, Norton, 1935, 42 et passim.]

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a breathing spell in which to adjust his social and economic structure to the constantly changing environment with which he is presented by the “embarrassing fecundity of technology.”  These proposals have received wide publicity in the press and have been urged with unslackened insistence before scientific bodies and governmental agencies. [25]  The opposition comes equally from those representatives of labor who fear the loss of investment in skills which become obsolete before the flood of new technologies and from the ranks of those capitalists who object to the premature obsolescence of their machinery.  Although these proposals probably will not be translated into action within the immediate future, they constitute one possible nucleus about which a revolt against science in general may materialize.  It is largely immaterial whether these opinions which make science ultimately responsible for undesirable situations are valid or not.  W. I. Thomas’ sociological theorem – “If men define

25. Possibly because humanitarian sentiments are more deeply rooted among them or for other unascertained reasons, English scientists have especially reacted against the “prostitution of scientific effort to war purposes.”  Presidential addresses at annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, frequent editorials and letters in Nature attest to this movement for “a new awareness of social responsibility among the rising generation of scientific workers.”  Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, Sir John Orr, Professor Soddy, Sir Daniel Hall, Dr. Julian Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane and Professor L. Hogben are among the leaders of the movement.  See, for example, the letter signed by twenty-two scientists of Cambridge University urging a program for dissociating science from warfare (Nature, 137, 1936, 829).  These attempts for concerted action by English scientists contrast sharply with the apathy of scientists in this country toward these questions.  The bases of this contrast might profitably be investigated.  In any event, although this movement may possibly derive from the sentiments, it may serve the function of eliminating one source of hostility toward science in democratic regimes.


situations as real, they are real in their consequences” - has been repeatedly verified.

In short, this basis for the re-evaluation of science derives from what I have called elsewhere the “imperious immediacy of interest.” [26]  Concern with the primary goal, the furtherance of knowledge, is coupled with a disregard of those consequences which lie outside the area of immediate interest, but these social results react so as to interfere with the original pursuits.  Such behavior may be rational in the sense that it may be expected to lead to the satisfaction of the immediate interest.  But it is irrational in the sense that it defeats other values which are not, at the moment, paramount but which are none the less an integral part of the social scale of values.  Precisely because scientific research is not conducted in a social vacuum, its effects ramify into other spheres of value and interest.  Insofar as these effects are deemed socially undesirable, science is charged with responsibility.  The goods of science are no longer considered an unqualified blessing.  Examined from this perspective, the tenet of pure science and disinterestedness has helped to prepare its own epitaph.

Battle lines are drawn in terms of the question: can a good tree bring forth evil fruit?  Those who would cut down or stunt the tree of knowledge because of its accursed fruit are met with the claim that the evil fruit has been grafted on the good tree by the agents of state and economy.  It may salve the conscience of the individual man of science to hold that an inadequate social structure has led to the perversion of his discoveries.  But this will hardly satisfy an embittered opposition.  Just as the motives of scientists may range from a passionate desire in the furtherance of knowledge to a profound interest in achieving personal fame and just as the functions of scientific research may vary from providing prestige-laden rationalizations of the existing order to enhancing our control of nature, so may the social effects of science be considered pernicious to society or result in the modification of the scientific ethos itself.  There is a tendency for

26. Robert K. Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” American Sociological Review, 2, 1936, 894-904.


scientists to assume that the social effects of science must be beneficial in the long run.  This article of faith performs the function of providing a rationale for scientific research, but it is manifestly not a statement of fact.  It involves the confusion of truth and social utility which is characteristically found in the non-logical penumbra of science.

Another relevant phase of the connections between science and the social order has seldom been recognized.  With the increasing complexity of scientific research, a long program of rigorous training is necessary to test or even to understand the new scientific findings.  The modern scientist has necessarily subscribed to a cult of unintelligibility.  There results an increasing gap between the scientist and the laity.  The layman must take on faith the publicized statements about relativity or quanta or other such esoteric subjects.  This he has readily done inasmuch as he has been repeatedly assured that the technologic achievements from which he has presumably benefited ultimately derive from such research.  Nonetheless, he retains a certain suspicion of these bizarre theories.  Popularized and frequently garbled versions of the new science stress those theories which seem to run counter to common sense.  To the ‘public mind,’ science and esoteric terminology become indissolubly linked.  The presumably scientific pronouncements of totalitarian spokesmen on race or economy or history are for the uninstructed laity of the same order as announcements concerning an expanding universe or wave mechanics.  In both instances, the laity is in no position to understand these conceptions or to check their scientific validity and in both instances they may not be consistent with common sense.  If anything, the myths of totalitarian theorists will seem more plausible and are certainly more comprehensible to the general public than accredited scientific theories, since they are closer to commonsense experience and cultural bias.  Partly as a result of scientific advance, therefore, the population at large has become ripe for new mysticisms clothed in apparently scientific jargon.  This promotes the success of propaganda generally.  The borrowed authority of science becomes a powerful prestige symbol for unscientific doctrines.


Another feature of the scientific attitude is organized scepticism, which becomes, often enough, iconoclasm. [27]  Science may seem to challenge the “comfortable power assumptions” of other institutions, [28] simply by subjecting them to detached scrutiny.  Organized scepticism involves a latent questioning of certain bases of established routine, authority, vested procedures and the realm of the ‘sacred’ generally.  It is true that, logically, to establish the empirical genesis of beliefs and values is not to deny their validity, but this is often the psychological effect on the naïve mind.  Institutionalized symbols and values demand attitudes of loyalty, adherence and respect.  Science which asks questions of fact concerning every phase of nature and society comes into psychological, not logical, conflict with other attitudes toward these same data which have been crystallized and frequently ritualized by other institutions.  Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes scepticism a virtue.  Every institution involves, in this sense, a ‘sacred area,’ which is resistant to ‘profane’ examination in terms of scientific observation and logic.  The institution of science itself involves emotional adherence to certain values.  But whether it be the sacred sphere of political convictions or religious faith or economic rights, the scientific investigator does not conduct himself in the prescribed uncritical and ritualistic fashion.  He does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed. [29]

It is this which in part lies at the root of revolts against the so-called intrusion of science into other spheres.  In the past, this resistance has come for the most part from the church which

27. Frank H. Knight, “Economic Psychology and the Value Problem,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 39, 1925, 372-409.  The unsophisticated scientist, forgetting that scepticism is primarily a methodological canon, permits his scepticism to spill over into the area of value generally.  The social functions of symbols are ignored and they are impugned as ‘untrue’.  Social utility and truth are once again confused.

28. Charles E. Merriam, Political Power, New York, Whittlesey House, 1934, 82-3.

29. For a general discussion of the sacred in these terms, see E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, London, Allen & Unwin, n.d., 37 ff., et passim.


restrains the scientific examination of sanctified doctrines.  Textual criticism of the Bible is still suspect.  This resistance on the part of organized religion has become less significant as the locus of social power shifted to economic and political institutions which in their turn evidence an undisguised antagonism toward that generalized scepticism which is felt to challenge the bases of institutional stability.  This opposition may exist quite apart from the introduction of certain scientific discoveries which appear to invalidate particular dogmas of church, economy and state.  It is rather a diffuse, frequently vague, recognition that scepticism threatens the status quo.  It must be emphasized again that there is no logical necessity for a conflict between scepticism, within the sphere of science, and the emotional adherences demanded by other institutions.  But as a psychological derivative, this conflict invariably appears whenever science extends its research to new fields toward which there are institutionalized attitudes or whenever other institutions extend their area of control.  In the totalitarian society, the centralization of institutional control is a source of opposition to science; in other structures, the extension of scientific research is of greater importance.  Dictatorship organizes, centralizes and hence intensifies sources of revolt against science which in a liberal structure remain unorganized, diffuse and often latent.

In a liberal society, integration derives primarily from the body of cultural norms toward which human activity is oriented.  In a dictatorial structure, integration is effected primarily by formal organization and centralization of social control.  Readiness to accept this control is instilled by speeding up the process of infusing the body politic with new cultural values, by substituting high-pressure propaganda for the slower process of the diffuse inculcation of social standards.  These differences in the mechanisms through which integration is typically effected permit a greater latitude for self-determination and autonomy to various institutions, including science, in the liberal than in the totalitarian structure.  Through such rigorous organization, the dictatorial state so intensifies its control over non-political institu-

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tions as to lead to a situation which is different in kind as well as degree.  For example, reprisals against science can more easily find expression in the Nazi state than in America, where interests are not so organized as to enforce limitations upon science when these are deemed necessary.  Incompatible sentiments must be insulated from one another or integrated with each other if there is to be social stability.  But such insulation becomes virtually impossible when there exists centralized control under the aegis of any one sector of social life which imposes, and attempts to enforce, the obligation of adherence to its values and sentiments as a condition of continued existence.  In liberal structures the absence of such centralization permits the necessary degree of insulation by guaranteeing to each sphere restricted rights of autonomy and thus enables the gradual integration of temporarily inconsistent elements.

The main conclusions of this paper may be briefly summarized.  There exists a latent and active hostility toward science in many societies, although the extent of this antagonism cannot yet be established.  The prestige which science has acquired within the last three centuries is so great that actions curtailing its scope or repudiating it in part are usually coupled with affirmation of the undisturbed integrity of science or “the rebirth of true science.”  These verbal respects to the pro-science sentiment are frequently at variance with the behavior of those who pay them.  In part, the anti-science movement derives from the conflict between the ethos of science and of other social institutions.  A corollary of this proposition is that contemporary revolts against science are formally similar to previous revolts, although the concrete sources are different.  Conflict arises when the social effects of applying scientific knowledge are deemed undesirable, when the scientist’s scepticism is directed toward the basic values of other institutions, when the expansion of political or religious or economic authority limits the autonomy of the scientist, when anti-intellectualism questions the value and integrity of science and when non-scientific criteria of eligibility for scientific research are introduced.


This paper does not purport to present a program for action in order to withstand the current threats to the development and autonomy of science.  It may be suggested, however, that as long as the locus of social power resides in any one institution other than science and as long as scientists themselves are un-certain of their primary loyalty, their position becomes tenuous and uncertain.

Harvard University.