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“The Moral Economy of Science”

In our discussion of Lorraine Daston’s “How Probabilities Came to Be Objective and Subjective,” commenter John Richters points to Daston’s 1995 article, “The Moral Economy of Science,” which is super-interesting and also something I’d never heard of before. I should really read the whole damn article and comment on everything in it, but for now I’ll just issue this pointer and let you do some of the work of reading and commenting.


  1. Anonymous says:

    I could have used some Writing Economy.

  2. jonathan says:

    Thank for the article. One of the threads running through it interests me. This sentence captures much of that, speaking about those who quantify: ‘They must also sacrifice some of the meanings attached to numbers and techniques: Johannes Kepler’s successors stripped his “laws” of their Pythagorean halo; Adolphe Quetelet’s successors jetti- soned his normative understanding of the normal curve.’ This followed mentions of Leibniz’ absurd belief it might take ‘a team of scholars less than five years to construct a Universal Characteristic by matching numbers to ideas and arithmetic operations to thought processes’. In other words, there is a difference between the quantification process and the ideation process, one refected in degrees of freedom where, for example, religious or mystical belief allows creative thought and then that is removed to generate whatever logic remains.

    Many of these transitions are lost, outside of Newton and his alchemy or Gödel and his Constitutional flaw: within the greatest minds are degrees of freedom that can appear in other threadings, like those that quantify conceptions through layers of detail, to be ridiculous, even insane. I try to keep this in mind when I read or hear absurd notions. They may be and usually are idiotic but then a lot of what even the best minds think is not only idiotic but reflects the freedom they need to think rigorously within a smaller space they can better rationalize.

    The article then discusses issues of credulity: weird things not only regular people might believe but absurd results wrongly reported and accepted by science. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of medicine can relate: the persistence of Galenic beliefs centuries past their sell by date is just one example of bad practices carried forward. Washing after surgery stands out: substantial mental clouds are necessary to avoid basic sterilization concepts when some doctors were clearly cleaner than others, etc. Mental degrees of freedom.

    I cannot imagine Cantor working with the constrictions that became ZFC.

    In direct response to the article, I’m not fond of the label ‘moral economy’ because the word ‘moral’ is so highly freighted, both as to approach and outcome. i dont think the piece defined the concept well because of that.

  3. jim says:

    “I should really read the whole damn article”

    Yeah, I dunno. Lotta literary bling.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yeah, if you remove the bling the thesis seems to be captured by the following quotes:

      “Put more sharply and specifically: certain forms of empiricism, quantification, and objectivity itself are not simply compatible with moral economies; they require moral economies.”

      What is a moral economy? It’s helpfully defined on the next page:

      “What I mean by a moral economy is a web of affect-saturated values that stand and function in well-defined relationship to one another”

      • rm bloom says:

        “What I mean by a moral economy is a web of affect-saturated values that stand and function in well-defined relationship to one another”.
        What ugly, soggy prose!

        W.V.O Quine’s article “Two dogmas of empiricism” treats famously this picture of the web of interlocking beliefs. It is provocative, even today; it is or was controversial; it is not dull that is for sure. But whatever else it is, it is crackling prose of the first order.

        • Anonymous says:

          I wouldn’t say ugly exactly, since Daston’s a good writer in a sense, but the bottom of the Marianna trench is less waterlogged than Daston’s prose. Even after taking a sponge to the Titanic levels of sogginess, I couldn’t find a sentence making a point clear enough to either agree, disagree, or contemplate.

          • Andrew says:


            This is a bit over the top. We’re talking about an academic article! If an academic article is well written, great. If it’s not so really written, that’s too bad as it can make it harder to follow the argument. But, as with academic writing in general, a lot of the problem is that it might be written in a style that you’re not familiar with. “Titanic levels of sogginess” . . . c’mon.

  4. Ney says:

    She is married to Gerd Gigerenzer. By the way.

  5. Winston says:

    While you’re talking about old papers, what do you think about CS Peirce’s writings, such as “The Doctrine of Necessity examined”?

  6. Ben says:

    I had to work to get past the intro, but this was pretty good. I think the paragraphs are meaningful units in this paper. For future readers, if stuff gets too boring, just read the start of each paragraph for the short version.

    I like the description of 17th century scientists one-upping each other (it makes me imagine two scientists talking: “I found a golden bird”, “Oh yeah? I found a golden bird, *and* it talked to me”). And then the measurement fanatics (“Three digits is sooo last week, catch up!”), and the process fiends (“My process is so good, anyone can do it! In fact, it’s better the less they know!”).

    I was initially frustrated that a discussion of any economy would leave out the money economy, but this gets addressed and they say they’re doing it on purpose. I don’t know what a moral economy of science is still but there was some good stuff here.

    • Ben says:

      I ended up on the Wikipedia page for Lemmings today. Quoting

      “In the 1530s, geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg proposed the theory that the creatures fell out of the sky during stormy weather[9] and then died suddenly when the grass grew in spring.[10] This description was contradicted by natural historian Ole Worm, who accepted that lemmings could fall out of the sky, but claimed that they had been brought over by the wind rather than created by spontaneous generation.”

      • jd says:

        This prompted me to read about “Ole Worm”, which seems like an amazing name for a “natural historian”…He went by Olaus Wormius.

        “he then wondered if the anti-poison properties associated with a unicorn’s horn still held true, and undertook experiments in poisoning pets and then serving them ground up narwhal horn (his poisoning must have been relatively mild because he reported that they did recover)”….hmmm, maybe that study could feature on this blog.

        Also, the Wormian bones are named after him.

        • Ben says:

          > “Ole Worm”, which seems like an amazing name for a “natural historian”


          > maybe that study could feature on this blog

          I like the idea of generalizing from narwhal horn to unicorn horn. You gotta work with what you have!

    • Anonymous says:

      Ben, I couldn’t figure out what a moral economy is either. My best guess it’s some version of the idea that there’s a sociology to the practice of science.

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