The Ethos of Science and Central Planning: Merton and Michael Polanyi on the Autonomy of Science

Péter Hartl



This chapter presents and compares Robert K. Merton’s and Michael Polanyi’s criticism of totalitarian control of science, their defense of the autonomy of science, and their account of how freedom of science and a free society depend on each other. Coming from different intellectual backgrounds, both thinkers argue that a free society and scientific research are based on the same values. In the following, I will discuss Merton’s and Polanyi’s analyses of the role of the scientific community’s epistemic and non-epistemic values and norms (referred to as the “ethos of science”) in scientific research and free society. The main thesis of this chapter is that Polanyi’s and Merton’s arguments and ideas about academic freedom and totalitarian control of science have several points in common, even though Polanyi himself was quite critical of Merton’s sociology of science. The chapter shows that Merton’s sociological and Polanyi’s epistemological approaches are coherent and mutually reinforce one another: their liberal defense of academic freedom and rejection of totalitarianism revolve around the idea that the values and the ethos of science should be respected as fundamental values in any liberal and democratic society — otherwise scientific research will be paralyzed and free society will collapse. Despite the shortcomings of their positions, we should heed their warnings about the dangers of economic and political interference in science, especially as we are faced with similar, albeit less radical, attacks on the autonomy of science today.

The chapter is structured as follows. In Section 3.2, I analyze the intellectual relationship between Merton and Polanyi and show how they saw each other’s views. While Merton sympathized with several of Polanyi’s ideas, Polanyi had quite negative views of Merton’s sociology of science, which he considered to be an erroneous relativistic theory. However, I argue that Polanyi misunderstood Merton’s sociology of science. In fact, their views on the liberal values of science and their defense of academic freedom against totalitarian control are very similar. Both reject an anti-liberal conception of the state, according to which the government is solely responsible for the welfare of citizens, and thus the notion that publicly funded scientific research should be controlled and directed by a centralized government authority.

In Section 3.3, I show how Merton’s famous conception of the values of the scientific community (universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism) served as the basis for his defense of academic freedom against totalitarianism. I demonstrate that for Merton, the values of science are identical to the values of liberal and democratic societies. Much like Polanyi’s, Merton’s defense of academic freedom is essentially liberal. However, I also argue that Merton’s position concerning external social and political influences on science was more historically adequate and empirically grounded than Polanyi’s. Merton was aware of such external factors in scientific discoveries and did not share Polanyi’s rigid distinction between applied and pure science. However, some critics have argued that Merton’s conception of values is not helpful for understanding the operation of the scientific community. To respond, I contend that Merton’s ideas can indeed be reformulated in a fruitful manner by relying on Radder’s interpretation. 1 also show that Merton’s account of academic freedom and liberal society is still relevant for understanding the political motivations behind the hostility toward scientific authority in the twenty-first century.

In Section 3.4, I reconstruct Polanyi’s criticism of totalitarian control and his defense of academic freedom. I outline the historical context of Polanyi’s position and analyze his objections to the idea of state-controlled or centrally planned science, as proposed by Marxist and socialist ideologists such as Bukharin and Bernal in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Polanyi, there are two main assumptions underlying totalitarian or authoritarian state control of science: scientific inquiry must be of immediate practical and economic value, and the state is solely responsible for the welfare of citizens. Polanyi argues that such assumptions inevitably lead to a rejection of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge and to the notion that scientific research is valuable only if it serves the goals determined by a central authority. 1 present Polanyi’s arguments for why he thinks these ideas are untenable and would paralyze scientific progress, and his claim that centralized state control will eventually not only lead to the collapse of academic freedom but also to that of free society in general. Polanyi argued that the state should recognize the autonomy of scientists and leave them to work on their problems, given that science can make progress only in spontaneous, unpredictable steps through autonomous interactions and information sharing between individual researchers.

Section 3.5 analyzes Polanyi’s idea of a free society, namely his conception of public liberty as opposed to libertarian ideas, and reflects on some further objections to his account of academic freedom. 1 highlight that Polanyi’s original account of academic freedom should be interpreted in its historical context. He developed his position as a response to the threat of twentiethcentury totalitarianism, which is why some of his views may seem idealistic and elitist today. In particular, his sharp distinction between pure and applied science should be modified. Moreover, Polanyi’s account lacks an analysis of ethical questions related to scientific research. Despite these problematic points, however, 1 argue that Polanyi’s warnings about the political control of science are still relevant in democratic societies today. The motives behind state control of scientific research identified by both Merton and Polanyi continue to be present - most importantly, the view that scientific research must have immediate social or economic utility, and that the government is the sole or principal representative of the people’s interests. These motives are independent of political systems and threaten academic freedom even in the twenty-first century and in countries where leaders are democratically elected.

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