Thursday, March 09, 2006

In The Name Of Science

by Edward Hugh

Well as many of us well know, science isn't always all it's cracked up to be, or all it should be. Following the recent and much publicised issue of stem cell research claims made by Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang (incidentally, they really do seem to have cloned a dog), today Nature is running the story of another dubious case. This time it is the claim of Purdue nuclear engineer Rusi Taleyarkhan's claims to have achieved table-top fusion in collapsing bubbles back in 2002 which are being put under the magnifying glass (and here). Whatever the final conclusion which is drawn in both these cases, two points should not escape our attention.

Firstly, the vast majority of practising scientists carry out high quality work free from any contamination with the types of issues raised in these cases. Secondly, that the large quantities of resources and institutional support now involved in carrying out research mean that science has, despite all the undoubted excellence, now moved along way from the conceptions we once had of it. In a cerain sense some kind of recall to order is long overdue. But what kind of order? Well in recent days, in trying to explain to others the objects and ambitions of this weblog I have often found myself saying, "you know, a scientific blog, in the Mertonian sense". The what, has normally been the response. How deep our vision, but how shallow our memory I often find myself thinking.

The Merton in question - Robert K Merton - was once upon a time the best known US disciple of the functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons, and among other things he was an able and interesting theorist of the sociology of science. Merton is probably best remembered for what have subsequently become known as the Mertonian Norms, or simply by their acronym CUDOS. Cudos stands for

  • Communalism
  • Universalism
  • Disinterestedness
  • Originality
  • Skepticism
Of course these are all goals to strive for, not a perfection to be one day attained, but for me they certainly form a good starting point for any consideration of what scientific is, and for that matter for what the governing principles of any weblog with scientific pretensions might be thought to be. For anyone who may be interested I have posted a short summary of the norms on our associated website.

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