Critical Science

CriticalScience ProblemDef

The role of science in society and policymaking has been fiercely debated with respect to the regulation of biotechnology, IPCC warnings on the climate crisis, and most recently the governance of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic. But the debate about the role of science has a much longer history.

Already Max Weber suggested about a hundred years ago in his lecture Science as a Profession and Vocation that “the first task of any competent teacher is to teach his students to acknowledge uncomfortable facts …” (Weber, 2012, p. 347) by which he meant facts that are opposed to their – and the teacher’s own – preconceived views. With regards to the lecturer, he emphasised that “the only virtue is that of plain intellectual honesty” (Weber, 2012, p.353).

In 1942, Robert K. Merton (1973) defined four key norms to characterise the ethos of modern science, namely communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism, which are still of relevance today. Communalisms refers to the common ownership of scientific work and the public sharing of insights (what is today termed ‘open science’). Universalism expresses the idea that in science the (social and institutional) position from which someone speaks should make no difference to its value – the argument counts, not the speaker. Disinterestedness simply refers to the idea that all scientists work for the benefit of science, i.e., to extend its certified knowledge*. (Organised) scepticism means that all scientific work should be subjected to the same rigorous assessment before it becomes accepted. Later, originality as a fifth norm was added to the list**: the idea that scientific work should aim to contribute something new, methodologically, theoretically, or empirically.

In reality, however, science does often not live up to these norms: it still matters a lot who says something (in terms of title, position, gender, nationality etc.) and it is obvious to anyone inside academia that not the same rigorous assessment is applied to all scientific work (e.g., Brainard, 2022). The relationship of science and society is not clarified by these norms either, as they describe the ethos of ‘modern science’, rather than the role of science and its ‘certified knowledge’ in societal developments and the so-called ‘knowledge society’. In this regard, the field of Studies of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) has been particularly illuminating. It has on the one hand highlighted that scientific work is a cultural practice as any other kind of work with shared norms, rituals, and sets of practices (e.g., Latour, 2003). On the other hand, it has illuminated the – often complicated – relationship between science, technology, and society. STS scholars have early criticised the narrow focus of regulatory science on the ‘risk’ or ‘safety’ of new technologies without considering their broader societal implications (e.g., Wynne, 1975).

The huge financial stakes of corporations and industries in technologies have led to lobbying in parliaments for favourable regulation (or deregulation) and the production of corporate ‘scientific’ facts to cast doubt on possible harm of technologies and avoid (further) regulation. Early warning scientists have often been attacked and intimidated and their reputation impaired. With corporate funding of scientific research programmes and professorships becoming more and more widespread, the danger of scientific knowledge production and agendas being increasingly dominated by corporate interests has aggravated, even for large academic bodies and institutions (see, for instance, Millstone & van Zwanenberg, 2000; Hilbeck et al, 2020; Jureidini & McHenry, 2022).

Against this background, critical scientists have a key role in inquiring regulatory decisions that are not based on a thorough appraisal (EEA, 2013) and public debate of the matters of concern (Latour, 2004), in highlighting and delving into research fields, research questions, and technologies that are neglected – be it for the lack of expected (corporate) profit or for the potential questioning of profitable ‘technological solutions’ marketed to people (consumers?). Critical scientists are interested in developing an integrative perspective on their subject matters, which requires critically reflecting upon the ontological, epistemological, and methodological underpinnings of research and knowledge production (see, for instance, Law, 2004; Emmenegger et al., 2017).

Furthermore, critical scientists are supposed to be ‘uncomfortable relatives’ in the scientific community, who not only critically reflect upon but also publicly denounce the implications of science in the colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal legacies of the past and present as well as in current unsustainable, unjust, and violent policies (e.g., Santos, 2014; Davis & Todd, 2017). They challenge the quantification and neoliberalisation of academic work and offer alternative pathways of ‘slow scholarship’ (see Mountz et al., 2015; Stengers, 2018). They are aware of the limits of the scientific pathways to knowledge and interested in real ‘cross-talk’ across scientific, social, and cultural boundaries both in setting research agendas and conducting research.


  • Brainard, J. (2022). Reviewers award higher marks when a paper’s author is famous: “Matthew effect” is powerful, unusually large study finds. Science, 377(6612), 1251–1251.
  • Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017). On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 16(4), 761–780.
  • Emmenegger, R., Rowan, R., Zuppinger-Dingley, D., Krug, C., Parreño, M. A., & Korf, B. (2017). Ontology and integrative research on Global Environmental Change: Towards a critical GEC science. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 29, 131–137.
  • European Environment Agency (EEA) (Ed.). (2013). Late lessons from early warnings: Science, precaution, innovation (No. 1/2013). European Environment Agency (EEA).
  • Grosfoguel, R. (2008). Transmodernity, border thinking, and global coloniality: Decolonizing political economy and postcolonial studies. Eurozine.
  • Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599.
  • Hilbeck, A., Meyer, H., Wynne, B., & Millstone, E. (2020). GMO regulations and their interpretation: How EFSA’s guidance on risk assessments of GMOs is bound to fail. Environmental Sciences Europe, 32(1), 54.
  • Jureidini, J., & McHenry, L. B. (2022). The illusion of evidence based medicine. BMJ, 376.
  • Latour, B. (2003). Science in action. How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
  • Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.
  • Law, J. (2004). After Method. Mess in Social Science Research. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Merton, R. K. (1973). The Normative Structure of Science. In R. K. Merton (Ed.), The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Millstone, E., & van Zwanenberg, P. (2000). A crisis of trust: For science, scientists or for institutions? Nature Medicine, 6(12), 1307–1308.
  • Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W. (2015). For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4 SE-Research).
  • Santos, B. de S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Stengers, I. (2018). Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.
  • Weber, M. (2012). Science as a profession and vocation. In H. H. Bruun & S. Whimster (Eds.), Max Weber: Collected methodological writings (pp. 335–353). Routledge.
  • Wynne, B. (1975). The rhetoric of consensus politics: A critical review of technology assessment. Research Policy, 4(2), 108–158.

* However, disinterestedness has been widely misconstrued as a virtue of individual scientists. Rather, as Wunderlich (1974, p. 375-6) pointed out, according to Merton “the concept of disinterestedness … really embraces two ideas; more exactly, it describes a relationship. Disinterestedness is defined as a specific set of means (the institutional pressure of surveillance) which generates or protects the desired end (the extension of certified knowledge) The means is crucial to the end and cannot be separated from that end without jeopardizing it. The extension of certified knowledge, therefore, requires surveillance by fellow scientists, surveillance to assure that faulty or fraudulent claims 'do not enter the canons of science'.” Hence, “so long as surveillance is operating, science can be described as disinterested. This has little to do with whether the individual scientist is disinterested. Individual scientists might very well be preoccupied with financial gain, prestige, or career over the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; so long as other scientists review and validate their work, science is characterized as being disinterested.” (ibid.)

** For the five norms, the acronym CUDOS (communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originality, scepticism) is now commonly used (see Zinman 2000). Neutrality has also been added by some authors as another norm (see Wunderlich 1974), but has not prevailed – for good reason: as feminist scholarship has long pointed out, there is no neutral “view from nowhere” (Haraway, 1988, see also Grosfoguel, 2008).