Speaking Truth to Power

”Speaking truth to power” refers to the belief that scientists, unimpeded by economic self-interest or partisan bias, will deliver honest and often uncomfortable truths to those in positions of power.

It is the foundational claim of the sociology of science that only certain types of social structure enable scientists – or, rather, science as a social institution – to reach the truth and present it with due authority. In a series of pioneering articles, written at a time when science was actively enlisted in the service of the state and made subservient to totalitarian projects, Robert K. Merton (1938, 1942) argued that a self governed science was most congenial to the aims and principles of a free society, and that this autonomy was best guaranteed by the distinctive ethos’ of its practitioners, which he characterized by the norms of universalism, communitarism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Capable of regulating itself through these normative principles, science was entitled to demand freedom from external influences and pursue unhampered the acquisition of fundamental knowledge.

Merton’s depiction of a self regulating science as the pillar of a democratic society and the best guarantee of uninterrupted scientific and technological progress reinforced the case of those scientists and politicians who, in the aftermath of World War II, believed that the state should continue its active support of science but ought to leave the management of resources and the setting of research agendas to the scientific community. A peculiar   social contract” between science and the state was established following the demobilization of science. This consensus was embedded in new institutions, like the National Science Foundation, through which government continued to provide enormous amounts of funding for basic scientific research, conducted mostly in academic institutions, but abstained from intervening directly in the setting of research priorities or the evaluation of the knowledge being created.

Thus, the model of science as a community driven by an ethos of disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and universalism allowed the drawing of a sharp boundary between science and the state. It is this balance of separation and mutual dependency between science and politics that has become the central object of investigation of the sociology of science ever since.

Starting in the 1970s, sociologists and historians began to explore more closely the historical origins of the ”ethos of science” and to question the degree to which it informed the actual practice of science. Studies of both the paradigmatic American case (Price 1965) and the contrasting experience of totalitarian regimes shed light on the historical imbrications of science and political power. These works were either skeptical of the idea of an autonomous science, driven solely by the curiosity of its practitioners, or at least put this image in a historical and comparative context. They expressed an uneasiness over the subjugation of science to the objectives of its patrons and the emergence of the infamous ”military industrial scientific complex.” The image of a ”basic,” or ”pure,” science, innocent and deaf to the interests of power and in a position to provide useful advice to policy makers, appeared increasingly untenable, and sociologists began to question the demarcations of the scientific and political realms.

In other words, what kind of truth does science speak to power, and how does its close engagement with state and market affect the scientific community? Detailed analyses of the role of scientific and technical expertise in policy debates highlighted the inability of science to bring technical closure to policy discussions, and showed how the truths that science speaks to power are often shaped and informed by the powers it hopes to speak to. The work of Dorothy Nelkin (1979) and others showed that groups of scientists, committed from the start to different policy options rather than disinterestedly searching for the independent truth, used their expertise to shore up their positions and to challenge alternative views that were themselves supported by equally confrontational scientific advocates. The scientification of policy leads to an intensification of differences rather than to their smooth resolution.

Similarly, Collingridge and Reeve (1986) showed how the desire to influence policy, and the consequent obligation to address the concerns and interests of policymakers, brings science to violate the very conditions – autonomy, clear disciplinary boundaries, and a low level of criticism of scientific claims – on which its ability to produce clear answers and unquestioned consensus is predicated. The result is almost paradoxical: to speak truth to power, science must abandon many of the normative and institutional conditions that protect its autonomy and efficiency. Science cannot deliver consensus when it is oriented toward questions posed by external actors, and on terms defined by those actors, and its legitimacy suffers as a consequence.

The intimacy of science and politics gives rise to forms of knowledge production and validation that differ significantly from the model offered by Mertonian sociology. Terms such as ”regulatory science,” ”trans science,” or ”mandated science” convey the sense in which science is increasingly a hybrid product, constituted by the constraints of political and economic agendas; they also express a desire to distinguish these hybrids from the paradigmatic ”pure” or ”basic” science, the kind of unencumbered truth finding enterprise from which the social authority of science still derives. This ”boundary work,” through which science shores up its autonomy and authority, has been a constant theme in the sociology of science (Jasanoff 1987; Guston 1999). In a similar vein, science’s ability to provide public truths to powerful institutions becomes more a matter of rhetoric and ”staging” (Hilgartner 2000) than of revealing self evident truths.

When science speaks truth to power, then, it often has to answer the questions that power poses to it, and the truths it can speak are of a particular kind – they are a form of knowledge deeply attuned to the logic and demands of the policymaking process. The complexity of political issues, most conspicuously in the regulatory arena, where matters of fact and technical assessment are inextricably linked to political and societal choices, turns science into a more complex, less pure, and less autonomous social institution. Some may think this threatens its integrity; others believe that it enriches it, and reintegrates science into the fabric of politics.


  1. Collingridge, D. & Reeve, C. (1986) Science Speaks Truth to Power: The Role of Experts in Policy Making. Frances Pinter, London.
  2. Guston, D. (1999) Stabilizing the Boundary between US Politics and Science. Social Studies of Science 29: 87-112.
  3. Hilgartner, S. (2000) Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
  4. Jasanoff, S. (1987) Contested Boundaries in Policy-Relevant Science. Social Studies of Science 17: 195-230.
  5. Merton, R. K. (1973) ”Science and the Social Order” (1938) and ”The Normative Structure of Science” (1942). In: The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Nelkin, D. (Ed.) (1979) Controversy: Politics of Technical Decision. Sage, Beverly Hills.
  7. Price, D. K. (1965) The Scientific State. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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