Studying the Scientists

Pei Koay reviews Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.

By Pei Koay | October 14, 2009

Steven Shapin. The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 486 pp, $29.

Given our dominant and overlapping cultures of corporate capitalism and innovation, characterized by uncertainty and risk in knowledge making and its practices, how do we come to believe scientists and their research findings today?

Studying the scientists

Scientists. Applera/Perkin-Elmer Collection, CHF Collections.

Two scientists work on an electron-beam lithography system.

Science History Institute

In The Scientific Life, historical sociologist Steven Shapin provides us with an answer and a major exploration of the cultural infrastructure of contemporary science. As one of the leading figures in science and technology studies, he has written extensively on the basis of scientific knowledge production in 17th-century Britain. In this present volume he extends his reach to write a cultural history of 20th-century American science. Despite this temporal-spatial move his primary thesis about the basis for authority in science in 17th-century Britain remains: scientific authority rests on trust. In 17th-century British science, people mattered. In contemporary American science, people still matter.

This is a consciously focused history. Shapin is acutely aware of the difficulties of drawing clear lines between descriptions of science, such as basic versus applied science or academic versus industrial. He is critical of these distinctions, but nonetheless his history of the scientific life primarily focuses on understanding its industrial component in the United States.

Shapin builds his argument methodically. Working chronologically, the initial chapters map out the social and cultural transition from science as a calling to science as a job. He traces the scientist’s ancestry from early modern conceptions of the natural philosopher to “priests of nature.” When his story reaches the 20th century and World War II, he suggests that the idea of the scientist as morally ordinary begins to take hold more broadly.

Moving further into the mid-20th century, the middle chapters focus on the integration of science and companies—that is, civic structures that project power and create wealth. He convincingly argues that this integration had far-reaching consequences for the scientist’s identity and what vouches for scientific authority then and now. But these chapters also serve to further his critique of the dichotomous frames that continue to haunt our articulations and evaluations of scientific knowledge.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to those he calls the “external commentators” of this period—mostly social-science researchers but also popular authors and journalists. In Shapin’s view academic social researchers often took a critical tone in characterizing industrial and state science as routine, unimaginative, and collective. Where university represented the good society, industry permitted only the ”organization man.”

While in the fifth chapter Shapin discusses the views of participants in science themselves—especially research managers of industrial laboratories—the following chapter combines the views of both external commentators and participants for a more focused discussion about scientific organization in mid-20th-century America. He shows the views of these groups as much more complicated than is often described and the dichotomous framings that induced tensions for working scientists both in the university and the company.

Celebrating university science and vilifying company- and state-influenced science have been the basis of countless unproductive debates. Shapin aims to shift the discussion from what he calls “celebration and accusation” to what he refers to as “description” in what is one of The Scientific Life’s most innovative and interesting chapters. While material from the preceding chapters is primarily document based, much of this one derives from interviews of and conversations with scientists and engineers conducted by Shapin and his assistant in 2002. Next, he continues the story of contemporary scientific life, including his observations of venture-capital functions. Here he shows the reader that technoscientific research and venture capital are not as bureaucratic, standardized, or empty as we often assume them to be, but instead are filled with dynamic characters. In these chapters he brings his larger argument home: that individuals, their virtue, and what we value as virtue, matter.

As in the 17th century, scientific knowledge still rests on trust among scientists, but as Shapin guides his reader through the decades, the scientific, historic, and moral landscapes change. In particular, Fascism, Communism, the cold war, and corporate capitalism expose the cultural fault lines crucial to understanding changing American views on what counts as the good society, good knowledge, and who can speak for it—that is, the virtuous knower. Today, this means technoscientific researchers and venture capitalists.

So why do today’s knowers trust each other in our era of intense uncertainty and widespread risk? While in the 17th century the right speakers were to be credited, not by virtue of their authority but by virtue of their gentility, in the 20th century the right speakers are credited not by virtue of gentlemanly conduct or even standardization rules but, according to Shapin, by virtue of their charisma. In the contemporary world we have commercially minded scientific entrepreneurs like Craig Venter and Kary Mullis. But there were intermediate steps, most notably in the 1960s, where charisma mattered but not in the same way as today, such as with Richard Feynman and James Watson.

The greatest strength of the work lies in its interdisciplinarity. As in his previous works, Shapin deftly brings together philosophical questions, sociological insights, and historical materials. With his focus on contemporary scientific life in this volume, he successfully includes observational approaches.

This is a sharp, sophisticated volume, but there are minor quibbles to be made. Given Shapin’s broad sweep and, ironically, given his masterful ability to narrate, his story may appear too simplistic. In large part simplicity is just what he wants to avoid. However, given his expansive history, he opens himself up to valid criticism.

Furthermore—and this may be more a caution to the reader than a critique of Shapin—his term description may be viewed by some as an appeal to objectivity, but this does not do justice to his effort. His story does not claim to be a vulgar objective history. Instead, this reviewer reads it as a sincere effort to understand why and how participants’ descriptions of scientific life in late-20th-century America differ so much between external commentators, especially social-scientific theorists. Shapin does not make the argument that the latter’s readings are wrong but that they are positioned differently from participants. In giving voice to his participants he attempts to highlight textures that are often not captured.

Lastly, his attempt to address gender and race is unsatisfying. He acknowledges that mid-century industrial scientists and research managers were mostly men, but by the time we reach the age of biotechnology and venture capitalism, he suggests that race and gender are not large concerns. It was also little discussed by his interviewees, not surprisingly. Shapin claims, or in his words “describes,” that today revenue seeking is more important than the gender or ethnicity of the scientist-entrepreneur. Yet a recent survey of the Boston Biotech CEO Conference showed that barely 10% of the more than 100 attendees were women, and all his examples of charismatic scientists are men: Watson, Feynman, Venter, and Mullis.

While it is crucial to allow the participants to speak, we must also be careful in privileging their words, as well as being careful in positioning our own work as “description.” Yet despite these minor criticisms, this is an expertly written and argued volume, providing a superb starting point to think about how the contemporary world comes to decide what counts as valued science—including its knowledge, workers, and scientific life.