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: