quote-most-institutions-demand-unqualified-faith-but-the-institution-of-science-makes-skepticism-robert-k-merton-55-39-36Last week I had an op-ed in the WSJ arguing that scientific debates – even they become when nasty and personal – should not be taken to the courts. The motivation for the piece was a recent lawsuit filed by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson against a fellow researcher and the National Academy of Sciences. The lawsuit follows in form, substance and even venue an earlier (and still ongoing) lawsuit filed by Michael Mann of Penn State against several journalists.

Mann “responded” to my op-ed via a letter from his lawyer to the WSJ. Mann’s lawyer seeks to adopt the authority of sociologist Robert K. Merton, whose norms I invoked in my piece, to argue that I am wrong. Mann’s lawyer writes (without any evidence):

Were Merton alive today he would reject Mr. Pielke’s claim that science is stronger when scientists must turn the other cheek to attacks on their character.

I’m happy to engage a debate with Prof. Mann (via his lawyer) over the writings of Robert K. Merton, who was of course a giant in the sociology of science

Contrary to the claim of Mann’s lawyer, when we read what Merton actually wrote (and he wrote a lot) we find that he explicitly argued that science benefits when scholars “turn the other cheek” in societal debates over science. Merton argued that this is especially the case when scientists are in a debate with non-scientists. This is 180 degrees opposite from what Mann’s lawyer has asserted.

Let me quote a bit from Merton’s book, The Sociology of Science (1973, pp. 57 ff.):

“[C]ontroversies follow the classically identified course of social conflict. Attack is followed by counterattack, with progressive alienation of each party to the conflict. Since the conflict is public, it becomes a status battle more nearly than a search for the truth.”

Sounds like the public debate over climate change, no? Merton continues:

“The process of social conflict would more often be halted in mid-course and instead turned into intellectual criticism in there were nonreciprocation of affect, if a stop were put to the reciprocity of contempt that typically marks these polemics.”

By “nonreciprocation of affect” – a jargony term for sure – Merton simply means: “someone has to be the bigger person.” Merton argues that social settings do not always lend themselves to the “nonreciprocation of affect.” Instead, he argues that the more authoritative party in such a conflict needs to stand up for intellectual norms. He writes that the “nonreciprocation of affect”:

“… requires a differentiation of status between the parties, at least with respect to the occasion giving rise to the expression of hostility. When this status differentiation is present … the nonreciprocity of expressed feeling is governed by a technical norm attached to the more authoritative status in the relationship.”

So we actually have a pretty good idea what Merton would say about the Jacobson and Mann lawsuits: Be better than this. Get out of the mud. Engage in the “nonreciprocation of affect.” Don’t sue because someone said you were wrong, even if they were meanies.

Merton also says that such conflict can be good for science, if we follow the norms of science (emphasis added):

[I]n social conflict cognitive issues become warped and distorted as they are pressed into the service of ‘scoring off the other fellow.’ Nevertheless, when conflict is regulated by the community of peers, it has its uses for the advancement of the discipline.

There are two lessons here:

First, if you are a climate scientist, be careful outsourcing intellectual debates over the sociology of science to your lawyer.

Second, and far more importantly, Merton is consistent in his writings that scientists have a special obligation when it comes to social conflict that should privilege intellectual debates over scoring points. That implies the importance of “nonreciprocation of affect.”

In plain English: Get out of the gutter and out of the courts. Don’t hide behind lawyers. We are all served by scientists who take the high road and peers who hold them to that standard.