There are a set of norms of science, first presented by Robert K Merton and known as the Mertonian norms. I found what seems to be a good description of them here. There are four Mertonian norms, called universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, and organised skepticism.
You can read the links above for more detailed descriptions, but they’re essentially that research results should not be judged on the basis of those presenting them, that the results of research should be available to all, that researchers should not conduct research for personal gain, and that research claims should not be accepted by the scientific community until they’ve been suitably tested.
The reason I thought I would discuss this is because Roger Pielke Jr, in his never-ending quest to withdraw from the public climate change debate, has a new Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal. The title is A litigious climate threatens scientific norms. I wanted to focus on one particular claim in Roger’s Op-Ed. Roger says
Another of Merton’s norms is “universalism”—that the substance of scientific claims is what matters, not the characteristics of the people advancing them. A layman has as much right to challenge a scientific claim as a scientist does. But Mr. Mann’s case illustrates an important asymmetry: Scientists are bound by Mertonian norms, but nonscientists are not. Mr. Mann’s critics were unfair, obnoxious and wrong, but adherence to Mertonian norms means that Mr. Mann not respond in kind, much less go to court. It may seem unfair, but what makes science different from ordinary political discourse is also essential to making science strong.
The first two sentences seem like reasonable representations of Merton’s norm, but the rest is just nonsense. I think most scientists would recognise Merton’s norms as reasonable representations of how scientists should – in general – conduct themselves, but I’d be surprised if many had actually heard of Merton’s norms specifically (I hadn’t, until recently). They’re clearly not formal rules that scientists abide by; at best they’re guidelines. Scientists are certainly not bound by them and, as with most things, reality is not quite as simple as these norms might suggest.
Furthermore, Merton’s norms are intended to describe responsible research conduct, which should – ideally – apply to anyone who engages in such activities. If anything, universalism implies that anyone can conduct research and that their results should not be judged on the basis of who they are. If a layperson challenges a scientific claim then, in some sense, they’re no longer a layperson. If Merton’s norms apply, then they should apply to all who think that they are in a position to challenge scientific claims.
Also, Merton’s norms say nothing about how scientists should conduct themselves in the public realm, or what they’re expected to endure. Scientists are as entitled to protection under the law as any citizen of the country in which they reside. Merton’s norms do not indicate that scientists should not respond in kind, or that scientists should not go to court to resolve disputes. This does not mean that I think that it’s necessarily wise to do so, or that those who do so are justified in doing so, simply that there is no reason why they should be prohibited from doing so. In some cases I think it is justified, in others not.
The suggestion that scientists are not entitled to use the courts to defend themselves is pretty bizarre, but there’s – in my view – an even more insidious issue. One thing that Roger’s narrative promotes is the idea that we can be dismissive of some research areas when we regard scientists as not behaving as they should (the irony of this is probably lost on Roger). He even confirmed, on Twitter, that he is indeed suggesting that these factors are beginning to corrupt the field (the field, in this case, being climate science).
What I fully expect is that as it becomes clear that we’ve ignored an important issue, there will be increasing attempts to find people to blame. We really should – in my view – push back against suggestions that a problem is that the behaviour of the scientific community – or some in the scientific community – does not satisfy some set of norms. If we do end up regretting not having taken this issue more seriously, the reason is not going to be because some scientists chose to use the courts, or because others were rude on Twitter.
One of Michael Mann’s lawyers has published a letter responding to Roger Pielke Jr’s Op-Ed. It makes some similar arguments to what I’ve said here. Roger has responded with various quotes from one of Robert Merton’s books. Not only does a sociologist not get to define how scientists/researchers should behave, but I looked up the quotes and they appear to refer to public disagreements between researchers/scientists (in fact, sociologists specifically) not to cases where a scientist has potentially been libeled/defamed.