Review: The Scientific Life by Steven Shapin: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

[amtap amazon:asin=0226750256]

In  The  Scientific  Life,  Steven  Shapin  argues  that  people  and  their virtues matter in late modern science. While scientists struggle to remain objective and impersonal, it is the personal, familiar, and charismatic–the traits once swept aside as vices by the scientifically virtuous–that have come to embody the “truth-speakers” of late modernity. With an enormous and  sometimes  daunting  wealth  of  primary  sources  (from  technical commentaries to his own sociological fieldwork), Steven Shapin breathes life  back  into  these  quotidian  virtues.  The  Scientific  Life  is  as  much a disjointed genealogy of scientific virtue as a reminder that trust still matters at the cutting-edge of scientific “future-making.” Shapin’s mastery of historical narrative is clear; anyone interested in the American scientific persona and how it has transformed in the twentieth century would do well to wade patiently through this thick and rewarding text. But hang up your expectations of historical linearity (and, sometimes, thematic coherence) as you weave through motley professionals, theorists, and critics drawn from over a century of science commentators. Perhaps this work is best described as textured: rich in detail, woven intricately, but hardly smooth to the touch.

Shapin begins by detailing the  transformation from science as calling to science as job in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (chapters 1-3). During this period, the idea of science as vocation lost its impetus as the fruits of discovery became politically and economically valuable. Robert K. Merton’s sociology exemplified this shift, asserting that neither constitutional nor motivational differences existed between scientists and non-scientists.  The  Mertonian  “moral  equivalence”  of  the  scientist  (i.e. scientists  are  just  ordinary  folk)  eventually  displaced  Weber’s  “man  of science,”  in  whom  moral  authority  once  stemmed  from  a  merging  of curiosity and morality. The “spirited” scientist became the disinterested scientist, in personal convictions and professional identities. Despite the unclear origins of this “moral equivalence” (as Shapin prudently admits), a commitment to the idea persisted in the post-World War II era of “Big Science” and the military-industrial-academic complex.

As  scientists  moved  from  the  Ivory  Tower  to  industry,  scientific virtues had to be reconfigured. During the emergence of Big Science, the   autonomous   scientific   intellectual   moved   onto   government   or industry-backed research teams; the ideals of scientific creativity, freedom, and integrity took new forms. Shapin recounts the ambivalent musings of academic commentators, industrial managers, and research directors as they lamented or embraced these changes in industrialized science (chapters 4-6). While science aimed to uncover truth, business aimed to unearth profits–reconciling these two raisons d’etre was a conundrum. Did the pressures and monetary rewards of industry tarnish the contemplative and  humble  virtues  of  the  “Research  Man”  cum  “Organization  Man”? Social  scientists  wrote  the  story  of  a  scientist’s  transition  to  industry as  one  of  trauma,  shock,  and  rebellion;  maladjustment  became  a sociological “matter of fact” arising from the “fundamental conflict in the goals  and  values  of  scientists  and  businesspersons”  (p.  114).  These commentators argued that scientists trained and socialized in the Tower had  to  be  resocialized  as  employees,  with  loyalties  to  the  company rather  than  the  unwavering  search  for  truth.  A  defence  of  scientific individualism defined scientists’ anti-authoritarianism, which rallied against the  secrecy  of  the  Cold  War  and  McCarthyism;  American  society was  reminded  that  its  “security  and  welfare  depended  upon  some  of its  least  sociable  and  least  conforming  members”  (p.  177).  Yet  the abstract tensions between Merton’s “scientist-socialized-into-virtue” and the  punch-card-carrying  industrial  researcher  did  not  exist  in  the  eyes of research managers. This is a surprising historical discordance, which Shapin demonstrates in meticulous detail. The view from the managers (what Shapin calls the “internal” perspective) observed and sought to solve concrete organizational problems in the uncertainty of scientific discovery. Research managers saw past the abstract problems of collectivization to  see  the  new  forms  of  multidisciplinarity  and  adaptability  emerging in the day-to-day problems of collective work. In fact, industry was the place of the most radical experiments where “institutional uncertainties were greatest” (p. 191) and the organicism of group research incited an explosion rather than a restriction of creative capacities. It was no longer clear that academia was the exemplar of scientific productivity or virtue.

The emergence of entrepreneurial scientists in the 1970s radicalized the political economy of Big Science and the quest for intellectual property in the Wild West of venture start-ups (chapters 7-8). The once essential virtues  of  an unwavering  commitment  to  truth  and the  selflessness  of social responsibility gave way to the “play instinct” and the hedonism of scientific “fun.” James Watson and Richard Feynman exemplified this new charisma mid-century, and only later did this entrepreneurial spirit combine with  the  quest  for  commercial  success.  Craig  Venter  and  Kary  Mullis, the  giants  of  biotech  entrepreneurism,  towered  over  the  “gentlemanly conception of science” (p. 225) and reinvigorated scientific pursuits with the boldness and urgency of youth, adventure, and downright coolness. The knowledge economy became central to late modern capitalism and entrepreneurial  science  pushed  this  economy  into  the  future.  Shapin describes  this  shift  as  one  of  degree  rather  than  kind  as  scientists were tempted away from academe. Academic environments of “Ivy and Ivory”–once idealized as the fertile grounds of creativity–were burdened by grant writing, administrative responsibilities, and compulsory teaching. The scientific playground became more enticing.

At the leading edge of this technoscientific frontier–in the scientific life of the twenty-first century–normative uncertainty becomes a crucial factor. More than ever before “people and their virtues matter” (p. 270, original  emphasis).  Trust  and  familiarity  are  vital  to  venture  capitalists confronting the radical uncertainties of “future-making”; scientists at the edge, so reliant on venture funding, must appeal to the gut instincts of investors.  This  is  not  a  reawakening  of  pre-modern  virtues  once  lost, but a new social order shaped by the “world of making the worlds to come” (p. 303). Here Shapin’s work is rich in its thematic approach to personal interviews and its historical skepticism of archetypes. Shapin’s historiography is nuanced, appreciating the heterogeneity of “the texture of quotidian life in entrepreneurial science” and the inability to weave “any one  coherent  narrative”  (pp.  251-52)  from  such  diversity.  Yet  here,  as throughout the work, Shapin implies grand lessons about the “scientist” and the “scientific life” that are unjustifiably sublime. Perhaps the work should have been more humbly titled “Some Scientific Lives,” especially considering  his  focus  on the  late modern  vocation in  a particular  and concrete  historical  geography.  Nevertheless,  readers  of  this  pluralistic narrative are left with a revitalized appreciation for scientific virtues: why they mattered in late modern technoscience and why they continue to matter in the world to come.

This review was recently published in Spontaneous Generations:

Spontaneous Generations


Michael Cournoyea
Michael Cournoyea is a doctoral student at the IHPST at the University of Toronto. He received his BSc at McGill University in Biology and Philosophy and has worked at the intersection of these disciplines for the last five years. He currently works as a don at Victoria College and is active in student life on campus. His work examines the pluralism and politics of causal explanations in medicine -- whether biomedical, evolutionary, phenomenological, or sociological. The implications of his work are pragmatic, engaging issues in racialized medicine, the sovereignty of patient health, and how we should live the healthy life.


  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    Hey Michael,
    What does Shapin means by “virtue” and in what sense is it moral/epistemic?

  • Zajko Reply

    This book was a much-welcome read. There just isn’t enough STSish literature dealing with the world of commercial, industrial (also military) science. It’s also a useful reminder that there are face-to-face (and less direct) human interactions at work here. Charisma and moral evaluations of individuals certainly do come into play when there is normative uncertainty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *