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Configurations 11.2 (2003) 137-144

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Introduction Scientific Ethos :

Authority, Authorship, and Trust in the Sciences

University of British Columbia

Ethos is most saliently in sociology a concept of Robert K. Merton's, characterizing the social norms constitutive of science.1 Ethos is most saliently in rhetoric a concept of Aristotle's, referring to the persuasive appeal from the character of the speaker.2 While the classical rhetorical term ethos was quite self-consciously chosen by Merton, sociological accounts of ethos are not obviously compatible with rhetorical ones; the classical rhetorical term seems both peculiarly appropriate to and peculiarly appropriated by sociology of science. The problematic of the terms is not to be circumvented, though, but rather mined by an interdisciplinary scholarship, trained on, for example, the relation of the character of science to the character of those who perform it, the means by which the character of science is represented in the personae of individual speaker-scientists, and the ways [End Page 137] in which the community of scientists is linked to the larger society by virtue of shared values instantiated in the character of science. The aim of this special issue is to illuminate scientific ethos as a key term for understanding the conduct of science.

The most basic question to be asked regarding scientific ethos is "why do we believe science?" But this basic question is also complex. Even in a culture that grants to science a commanding voice in many matters, we do not always believe what is said in the name of science, and we do not all equally believe in science or believe in all scientists equally. Questions of belief, trust, credibility, authority, authorship, expertise, and persuasion need to be gathered, and approached from various disciplinary vantage points, to reveal something about the place and the role of science in society.

"Why do we believe science?" is also a question that highlights the problematic nature of interdisciplinary research—so it is interesting not only as a question about science, but also as a question about Science Studies. For example, "Why do we believe science?" is, in philosophy, a question ordinarily posed on the way toward either a skeptical or a justificatory answer. That is to say, the question is posed with the understanding that what is required of an answer is that it not only describe why we believe science, but also explain why such belief is justified or rational. Philosophical questions are, thus, implicitly challenges: a rationally unsatisfying answer to the question invites the response, "Well, if that is why we believe science, we really ought not to believe it." Moreover, since most philosophers insist that belief in science is an exemplary rational belief, the skeptical response to an account of belief in science is a reductio not of science's claim to be rational knowledge, but of the answer's claim to be probative.

"Why do we believe science?" can also be asked in a descriptive and empirical mood. A sociologist might describe the cultural resources marshaled by science as it attempts to win—and, perhaps, succeeds in winning—our conviction. A rhetorical theorist might use the resources of rhetorical theory to explain how science achieves its persuasiveness, and this theorist may not in principle divide the rhetoric of science from the rhetoric of other persuasive discourses—for example, those in politics or in advertising. Should the answers offered by the sociologist or rhetorical theorist not satisfy the philosopher's need to secure the rational foundations of scientific belief, the sociologist's or rhetorical theorist's task might then be divided from the philosopher's: the descriptive answer was meant neither to bolster nor to undermine the authority of science, but simply to explain what in fact secures that authority. If the philosopher [End Page 138] finds an empirically adequate explanation of scientific authority to be irrationalist in its consequences, that is a problem for him or her, not for science or sociology or rhetoric.

Notwithstanding various difficulties—and, arguably, because of them—a maximally...