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History and philosophy

Merchants of light

Richard Brown looks to lessons from the history of open science in order to move beyond ideals and technology.

22 April 2021

The open science movement has gained momentum in recent years. With fresh appeals to the virtues of openness and transparency and an arsenal of emerging digital platforms, many ‘open science enthusiasts’ describe the potential for change as being analogous to the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. Physicist and writer Michael Nielsen has said, ‘The openness I am advocating would be a giant cultural shift in how science is done, a second open science revolution extending and completing the first open science revolution’ (Bartling & Friesike, 2014).

A closer inspection of the history of the scientific revolution that led to the Age of Enlightenment shows that, although scientific virtue and the availability of emerging technologies were important ingredients, societal structures and personal motivations were central to enacting significant change. For those eager to usher in a second revolution of open science, a deeper understanding of the lessons of history from the first is essential. Furthermore, Psychology as a discipline may be uniquely positioned to not only benefit from emerging open science practices but also to play a key role in understanding what is required to motivate the acceptance of methodological change.

From Athens to Wittenberg  

The typical portrayal of ancient Greece celebrates a vision of vibrant, open public debate championed by the assembly of Athenian democracy (Cammack, 2013). However, to assume that the openness of political discourse translated into the free-flowing exchange of philosophical and ‘scientific’ knowledge would be a mistake. For example, despite the countless discoveries made by Pythagoras (570-495 BC), his disciples were bound to secrecy. Plato (428-348 BC) banned the disclosure of his most closely guarded ideas. The fierce and competitive nature of public debate led to the formation of distinct, competing and uncooperative schools of thought, often thwarting the potential for collaborative efforts (David, 2004). This culture of secrecy contributed to the burying of scientific gems like Democritus’ (460-370 BC) views on atomism, only to be unearthed and developed centuries later (Sarton, 2012).

As the centuries proceeded, the ideas of Plato and Aristotle (384-322 BC) and their early attempts at natural philosophy found new backing in the form of the European scholars of the Catholic Church. Plato’s ideas, once filtered through the works of Saint Augustine (354-430), flourished thanks to the support of Bonaventure (1221-1274). Much of Aristotle’s works were rediscovered by medieval scholars and, despite an initial period of rejection, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was ultimately able to encourage their acceptance by the Church (Kenny, 2005). The Church’s new scholastic approach sought to reconcile its own traditions with the unearthed authority of ancient Greece. However, this emerging medieval ‘science’ intentionally withheld knowledge from the ‘vulgar multitude’ and was actively opposed to notions of scientific openness (David, 2004).

The culture of secrecy of the Church received increasing criticism from bold scholars such as John Wycliffe (1330-1384), who advocated for the translation of the Bible into the common vernacular (Kenny, 2005). Mounting pressure ultimately led to Martin Luther (1483-1546) famously nailing his 95 Theses in 1517 to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This initiated a theological revolution that would rock Europe to its foundations. Central to this was Johannes Gutenberg’s (c1400-1468) invention of the printing press in 1440, which allowed Luther to make multiple copies of his ideas available for open dissemination (Triggle & Triggle, 2017). Gutenberg revolutionised the possibilities for the scholarly dissemination of ideas – not only the fuse that lit the Protestant Reformation, but also the means for the early beginnings of modern science (Epstein, 2008).

The ideals of Francis Bacon

The late 16th and early 17th centuries saw a break from the culture of secrecy in questions of natural science towards an ‘open science’ committed to the disclosure of new knowledge. Alongside the role of new technology, the ideals of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) would have a significant influence.

Bacon mounted a fierce challenge to the authority that had been granted to the works of Aristotle with respect to questions of natural science, labelling Aristotle as ‘the highest impostor’, comparable with the Antichrist (Manzo, 2006). Bacon argued that instead of being a real seeker of truth, Aristotle presented his theories as if revealing eternal truths, and was motivated by his own glory. Bacon suggested that, just as his pupil Alexander the Great had sought to conquer all nations, Aristotle had sought to conquer all opinions (Bacon, 1608). Instead, Bacon proposed a collaborative vision of open science through the organising of scientific communities to allow for the flourishing of knowledge in an era of enhanced communication.

Bacon’s utopian views on collaborative science are most vividly expressed in his posthumously published novel, The New Atlantis (1627). The narrative describes the account of a group of sailors shipwrecked off the Pacific Ocean who are embraced by the advanced and welcoming society of Bensalem. Bacon outlines the traditions and scientific practices of this utopian nation, describing a society that gathers and records data for public use, where collectors of knowledge are known as ‘merchants of light’. Bensalem’s own scientific institution, the ‘House of Salomon’, follows a collaborative and inductive process flowing from the compilation of experiments to the discovery and dissemination of the laws of nature (Manzo, 2006). Bacon devotes much of The New Atlantis to detailing the precise operations of the ‘House of Salomon’, outlining his envisaged structure for an advanced and cooperative society of open science.

Though the practices of the House of Salomon were confined to a mythical land, scientific societies took a significant step towards becoming a reality in the decades that followed Bacon’s death. The establishing of reputable scientific societies was pivotal in ushering in more collaborative scientific practices in the centuries to come. The Royal Society of London received its first charter from Charles II in 1662. Shortly after, the Académie Royale des Sciences was founded by Louis XIV in 1666. During the period of 1660-1793, governments officially recognised 70 other scientific institutions modelled after these initial two academies (McClellan, 1985). The Royal Society in London was founded to espouse the ‘improvements of natural knowledge’ (Peters, 2012) and was heavily influenced by the ideas and scientific culture of Baconism (Manzo, 2006; Peters & Besley, 2019).

Scientific revolution: old and new

For some, there are parallels to be drawn between the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the anticipated transition towards a new scientific era through the emergence of a fresh ‘open science’ (Maciel et al., 2015). The current use of the term ‘open science’ depicts a system based on principles of open access, open archiving and open publishing which promotes scientific collaboration and communication (Peters, 2014). Many argue that digitally networked open science has the potential to transform scientific culture in a similar way to the invention of the printing press (Delfanti & Pitrelli, 2015). Just as medieval scholars couldn’t have begun to contemplate the effects that Gutenberg’s invention would have on the flow of knowledge in the centuries to come, scientists today may struggle to grasp the potential for scientific revolution that may arise from the increasing digitalisation of knowledge (Epstein, 2008).

Armed with the technological advances of the digital era, the open science movement calls for increased openness in data collection, analysis, collaboration and publishing, justified by appeals to scientific virtue, akin to the ideals of Baconism (Lahti et al., 2017). However, some activists for open science appear perplexed by the apparent reluctance to adopt new practices, assuming that ‘science wants to be open’ (Delfanti & Pitrelli, 2015). A recent portrayal of the history of open science argued that, ‘since the early modern period, scientific endeavour has been motivated by a desire for knowledge driven by ideas, not authorship, with the result that texts have often been anonymous’ (Lahti et al., 2017).

On this understanding, one might assume that a virtuous depiction of science as the noble and open search for truth, coupled with new technologies, provide the complete recipe for scientific revolution, analogous to that of the 17th century. This would be a mistake. A more nuanced depiction of history leads us to believe that the dissemination of scientific information in the 16th and 17th centuries was not simply born of the combination of the idealistic pursuit of knowledge and emerging printing technologies (though these were key protagonists). This scientific revolution was further influenced by the complex legacy of European feudalism, as well as the personal incentives of both the scholars and patrons at the centre of emerging scientific movements. To understand the ushering in of a new era of ‘open science’ we must step beyond ideals and technology to consider a close examination of individual motivations. Thus, studying the lessons of history is essential homework for those who wish to navigate the choppy waters of scientific revolution. An unguided charter may lead science to shipwreck, and today’s scientists are unlikely to experience the fortuitous fate experienced by the sailors of The New Atlantis.

The legacy of European feudalism  

In his essay regarding the emergence of ‘open science’ institutions in the 17th century, Peter David highlights the significance of European feudalism in bringing about cultural change. The aristocratic patronage of artists, musicians and scholars was commonplace in Western Europe during the late Renaissance. Reputational competition among noble patrons motivated much of their efforts to attract the most prestigious minds in Europe to their courts. Those in positions of power sought to surround themselves with unparalleled talent, skill and depth of knowledge in order to provide a display of magnificence and grandeur to confirm and enhance their status as elites. The widespread disclosure and dissemination of discoveries, theories and knowledge of those scholars under the service of high society was done in order to bolster the fame of both the patron and the scholar. For those under the employment of such patrons, noble houses provided financial support which allowed them to pursue their scholarly interests, as well as offering the possibility for fame and further riches.

However, the increasing sophistication of mathematics and natural philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries posed a problem for patrons of the sciences (Delfanti & Pitrelli, 2015). The heads of noble houses were no longer able to accurately assess the validity and quality of the work of those advanced scholars under their employment (particularly in mathematics). This created the risk to patrons of surrounding themselves with second-rate scholars or charlatans which, if discovered, would prove very embarrassing and damaging to their reputation.

To address this informational asymmetry, public boasting, reputational trials and mathematical contests provided an external means by which patrons could assess the calibre of Renaissance mathematicians. Such competition led to greater open discussion of ideas amongst scholars through correspondence boasting of new claims, results and techniques. To bolster their reputation, scholars needed to adopt new practices of knowledge exchange, circulating their own theories and challenging others to demonstrate that the ideas they were espousing were verifiable. Much of this was aided by the emerging print system. Patrons openly endorsed the outsourcing of this screening process as it offered a more informed testament to the expertise of their chosen scholars. The broader the validation the better, which created a need for trusted collective judgment by expert communities (Delfanti & Pitrelli, 2015). The demand for such a scientific community led to informal gatherings and assemblies, which, with the support of patrons and states that stood to benefit from the ornamental benefits of regal patronage, led to the establishing of the early scientific institutions.

Therefore, in addition to the ideals of Baconism and the technological advances of Gutenberg, the emerging scientific culture can be seen in part as a legacy of European feudalism, as well as a product of the personal motivations for fame and honour of both patrons and scholars. Despite Bacon’s emphasis of the importance of scientific virtue and open ideals, even his utopian society of Bensalem stressed the value of personal reward in the pursuit of science by highlighting the honours bestowed upon those ‘merchants of light’ that bring forth new knowledge.

‘For upon every invention of value, we erect a statue to the inventor, and give him a liberal and honourable reward. These statues are some of brass; some of marble and touch-stone; some of cedar and other special woods gilt and adorned; some of iron; some of silver; some of gold.’

Looking forward

While many scientists today would be in support of the potential positive repercussions of a more open science, greater emphasis should be placed on understanding both the institutional and individual motivations for adopting new practices (Delfanti & Pitrelli, 2015). For example, some individuals may fear the possibility for the ‘free-riding’ of others, or the negative consequences of disclosing null results, or simply not feel sufficiently motivated to invest the required effort to embrace methodological change.

Psychology may arguably be one of the disciplines that stands to gain most from embracing more open scientific practices, given the unwanted attention it received in the wake of the replication crisis. The ubiquitous nature of digital technology, the emergence of ‘open science’ platforms, and fresh appeals to the importance of transparency and the virtues of open collaboration and communication, may be seen as sufficient for instilling cultural change. However, a criticism of open science enthusiasts may be that their emphasis of the virtue of more open and collective practices, and their highlighting increased digitalisation as their means to do it, may lead them to undersell the importance of a closer consideration of the institutional economic logics involved (Tyfield, 2013).

As seen by the legacy of European feudalism, such logics are fundamental to cultural change. Though the form of the institutional and financial structures of open science will be debated by the economists (Mirowski, 2018), psychology is conveniently poised to play a different role in addressing an important ingredient necessary for scientific revolution. History has also taught us that the personal motivations of the patrons of the sciences, as well as the egotism and vanity of the scientists themselves, were central in fuelling the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Those within our discipline who wish to usher in the further opening of scientific practice may be uniquely positioned to examine the motivations of both institutional benefactors and individual scientists, and to understand behaviours and mechanisms relevant to the compliance with emerging open science practices.

We are reminded by the previous scientific revolution that the presence of technology and appeal to scientific virtue are not all that is required to enact change. We must continue to go beyond ideals and technology to strengthen our understanding of the human motivations involved in scientific practice.

This may well involve an uncomfortable, but necessary, reflection upon our own weaknesses, vanity and egoism… as well as exploring and embracing the role of the ambitions of those who seek to benefit from the sciences.

- Richard Brown is at the University of Northumbria. [email protected]


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