Scientific Networks and Invisible Colleges

The notion that scientists and other scholars constitute a kind of community of scholars has frequently been asserted and discussed (Godfrey Smith 2003). The ”invisible college” of natural philosophers is a seventeenth century idea (Price 1963). The phrasing is reminiscent of Adam Smith’s later ”invisible hand,” except that the scientists are real persons and it is only the ”colleges” that are sometimes invisible. It stems from Robert Boyle’s allusion to the importance to the founding of the Royal Society of Freemasons. An early driving force behind the society was Sir Robert Moray, a Mason who was not himself a natural philosopher (Lomas 2002). Jonathan Swift satirizes the Royal Society as ”Laputa” in Gulliver’s Travels (Toulmin 1961), but the general consensus is that frequent communication among specialists is one of the hallmarks of modern science. A ”scientometrics” approach makes it clear that the exponential growth in scientific fields and discoveries has resulted in various kinds of networks, including ”networks of scientific papers” (Price 1986). It was only gradually over the course of the seventeenth century that the brief scientific paper replaced the book and Newton might well not have written his Principia Mathematica had there not been controversy about his papers on optics; ”afterward he did not relish publication until it could take the [then] proper form of a finished book, treating the subject from beginning to end and meeting all conceivable objections and side arguments” (Price 1963: 64).

Of course, there have also been very visible ties among natural philosophers and scientists. Merton’s (1968) study of the origins of science stresses the close personal relationships among many of the members of the Royal Society in England. Whether they were aesthetically inclined Puritans or perhaps more hedonistic in their outlook (Feuer 1963), they were in any case part of the same collectivity. Other scientists across Europe corresponded with the Royal Society. When scholars sympathetic to logical positivism met at Harvard in 1939 they articulated a concept of science as members of an illustrious community, but they were also individuals (Wilson 1999). Recent interest in network theory has prompted the idea of a scientific network.

The sociological study of science by early pioneers like Price (1963) and Merton (1968) has given way to science and technology in society (STS), a subdisciplinary field devoted to empirical research on the actual way in which research is carried out (Godfrey Smith 2003). Latour and Woolgar (1979) have studied the social construction of empirical findings in lab work. Sociological study of Nobel Prize winners in science indicates that those who study with Nobel Prize winners are themselves the most likely recipients of the Nobel Prize, presumably because they have first hand information about the cutting edge topics and techniques.

In hermeneutics the idea of a ”hermeneutic circle” or ”spiral” in science (Follesdal 1994) is associated with ”interaction between agents” and close ties among theorists and empirical researchers. In semiotics the notion of an interpretive community or network has been postulated as an aspect of Peirce’s (1998) more abstract notion of a recursive “interpretant.” Collins (1998) has stressed the general importance of networks. His theory holds that there is a ”law of small numbers” and that the half a dozen or so major ”philosophers” in any particular time and place are very likely to know one another. Each thinker searches for a niche. Full comprehension of the theory requires an understanding of the network of ties that cross over several generations.

Scientific networks are not just limited to physical or natural sciences. In classical and con temporary mathematics, statistics, arts, humanities, and social sciences the importance of such affiliations is sometimes made transparent through commemorative volumes. The Festschrift for Herbert Simon (Augier & March 2004) is a good example. The list of contributors reads like a ”who’s who” of noteworthy thinkers on topics like bounded rationality (Arrow 2004) and ”Hawkins Simon conditions” (Samuelson 2004). The history of economics is replete with cross fertilization within scientific networks, including the German Historical School that influenced Max Weber (Pearson 2002).

The analysis of science from the standpoint of its internal organizational structure in terms of networks of affiliation and communication has not gone unchallenged. Steinmetz (2005) points out that emphasizing the idea of the scientific community as a kind of cultural system can lead to a failure to notice outside influences and forces. Moreover, the “communal” qualities of a network are not always a matter of egalitarian values; they often involve gate keeping and personality conflicts (Abbott 1999). There is a sense in which all those who can participate in a “culture” larger than that of a gathering and hunting community are part of a largely invisible network (Robbins 2005). At the same time, the existence of invisible colleges (of at most 100 or so members) also brings problems of cooperation within and among such communities (Price 1986). The question of “incommensurability” among invisible colleges holding different paradigmatic positions, even within recognized sub disciplinary fields, continues to interest a broad interdisciplinary group of scholars (Kuhn 2000). Once scientific theories have become widely accepted by members of a network they are then no longer as directly linked to a specific subset of all scientists and become the common property of “science” in general, often influencing individuals and groups who are working on quite different sets of empirical problems.


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