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Robert K. Merton once said, “most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue” (Wikipedia, January 2013). This would serve as an important part of the theory behind his famous thesis. The Merton Thesis, which was the subject of his dissertation at Harvard University in 1936, was explained further in his 1938 book Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England. The thesis essentially states that the rise of early experimental science in early-modern England, and thus the Enlightenment, could be linked to the social behaviors valued by the Puritanism of that milieu (Thomas, 2011). So while Merton believes the rapid progression of science took place because of new freedom in religion, as a result of the Protestant reformation, one might question the integrity of this theory. This theory has been widely debated since its publication by other sociologists citing various reasons for its invalidity. To compliment this debate, we can consider the invention of the printing press shortly after the start of the Reformation. One might argue that while the Protestant Reformation could be traced as the origin of this new thinking in the scientific world, without the printing press the rapid progression of scientific theory and experimentation may have never taken place. Therefore, the Merton Thesis is refutable because without the printing press expediting the communication and education process, social behaviors valued by the Puritanism of that period would have essentially been insignificant as the acquisition and transfer of knowledge would have been occurring at the same rate it had been throughout history.

Robert K. Merton graduated from Harvard University with his PhD in 1936 and was promptly hired as a professor. He remained there until 1938 when he left for Tulane University where he remained for a few years. Merton was then hired at Columbia University where he spent the majority of his lengthy professional career, eventually being named a University Professor. He is considered by many as the primary founder of the sociology of science, one of the clearest of all sociological theorists, and an innovator in empirical research methods (Calhoun, 2010). Merton is credited with the coinage of terms like ''self-fulfilling prophecy'' and ''role models,'' which have worked their way into everyday language. He is also known as the father of focus groups, which became his primary focus later in his career (Kaufman, 2003). Merton has published many books with the most popular being “On the Shoulders of Giants.'' This book is said to have gone far beyond the confines of sociology and was referred to by Merton as his ''prodigal brainchild.'' This publication not only demonstrated the patience required with his academic writing but also revealed the depth of his curiosity and the breadth of his prodigious research (Kaufman, 2003). Merton’s work was to become a foundation for the rise of the sociology of science in America. However, despite his extensive and impressive resume with his collection of published works, accolades and respect within the field of sociology, his aforementioned dissertation from 1936 remains widely debated (Holten, 2004).

Taking a more analytical look at the thesis itself we can break it down into two parts. The first part analyzes and isolates the scientific portion of the thesis. It notes that changes in science occur due to an accumulation of observations and improvement in experimental technique and methodology. The second part looks at the theorized driving force behind the changes in science. It presents the idea that the popularity of science in England in the 17th century, and the religious demography of the Royal Society can be explained by a correlation between Protestantism and the scientific values (Wikipedia, November 2012). The underlying linkage between the two, science and religion, is that many of the great scientists during this period were Protestant or Puritan, although there were some non-Protestant scientists.

The Protestant Reformation was a major movement in Europe during the 16th century. Many historians signal this as the beginning of the modern era, as old order began to fade and the Catholic Church was tested. The Reformation essentially started when Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, posted the 95 theses on the church door in the town of Wittenberg. This was his response to changes in the Church including selling indulgences. Indulgences, for lack of a better term, are “get out of jail free” cards. If you want to murder three people, all you had to do was go to the Church, buy your indulgences, and you practically had your license to kill. This was a way for the Church to make money. All of these issues came during a time when the Catholic Church was already mortally wounded. People felt they were not able to trust their priests and wanted to read the Bible for themselves (Jackson, February 2013). In his 95 theses, Martin Luther argued that the Bible, not the pope, should be the primary source of religious education, or the primary means of discerning God’s word, thus voicing the opinion of many of the so called “reformers.”

The Catholic Church of course had to counter Martin Luther’s attack. This is known as the Counter Reformation. The leader of this movement was Spain, which at the time was relishing its “golden century.” Spain was the pope’s best ally and was a good one to have considering they were a dominant world power. Henry VIII in England also remained loyal and used his writing talents to attack Lutheranism. However, his loyalty would not persist, as he had to tend to the more pressing need of preserving the Tudor dynasty (_, 2013). However, the Counter Reformation did not seem to be very effective, as the Protestant Reformers continued to retool their religion.

The hallmark of the Protestant Reformation lies within the Bible itself. People wanted to read the Bible for themselves and connect with God personally, rather than through a priest. With the demand for copies of the Bible increasing, there needed to be some sort of technology developed to help make books faster than the traditional handwritten copy. Enter the printing press. A metal type movable printing device that the Koreans originally developed in the 13th century which applied the typecasting method that was used in coin casting would be used as the model to be perfected by Johannes Gutenberg.
“Gutenberg created an alloy that was made up of tin, lead, and antinomy. This alloy melted at low temperature, and it was excellent for die casting and durable in the printing press. It made it possible for separate type pieces to be used and reused. Instead of carving entire words and phrases, Gutenberg carved the mirror images of individual letters on a small block. The letters could be moved easily and arranged to form words. This device was the printing press, and it revolutionized the printing industry.” (Unknown, 2013).

Using this incredible piece of technology, Gutenberg started printing Bibles in 1452. It is said that he was initially able to produce a total of two hundred copies of the Bible that he put up for sale in 1455. Once he had a surplus of Bibles, he began printing other books. This would be the start of mass textual communication (Jackson, February 2013).
At approximately the same time as the invention of the printing press, universities across Europe began to develop into what is now consider modern universities. After the debacle with the Papal Schism, which lasted from 1352 to 1414 in which the theologians at the University of Paris were essentially asked to find a solution but ignored by the Church and the throne, universities began to abandon theology and take a more humanistic approach (Jones, 2013). Included in this was the start of professors who had to do research to hold their positions, the Heidelberg education model and the need for textbooks. Once again, the printing press played a vital role in the production of textbooks as well as journals, which allowed universities to share knowledge fairly quickly (Jackson, February 2013). Because of this, new knowledge was spreading to more and more minds faster and faster which in turn meant they could take that knowledge, manipulate it, question it, and formulate new knowledge to be shared. This explosion of knowledge across Europe followed the four-step education and communication process but was now faster than ever due to the printing press (Jackson, 7 January 2013). Keeping that in mind, one could consider the printing press as the key piece in the expansion of knowledge as a whole, but also scientific theory and experimentation. Professors and students would obtain these books and articles thus allowing them to acquire the knowledge, they could then use this to ask a new question regarding something along the same lines, and proceed to manipulate it and formulate new knowledge with further research and experimentation. Once complete, they could publish their works and share it with others, thus feeding the process again and fueling the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries with the “purpose to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method” (Wikipedia, February 2013). During this period, some of the greatest philosophers and scientists came to the forefront of society and proposed new theories and knowledge. For example, at the beginning of the so-called scientific revolution, geocentric theory as proposed by Ptolemy was replaced by Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric solar system. Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, having new knowledge studied it further and disputed Copernicus in the sense that Copernicus believed the planets travel in circular motions around the sun. Kepler believed that instead of circular motions, the plants instead moved in an elliptical motion. Galileo Galilee, an Italian astronomer was a proponent of the heliocentric theory. His work led to the development of his own telescope, which he then used to observe sunspots on the moons of Jupiter. Getting away from astronomy a bit, Galileo also worked with ballistics and ultimately discovered that cannonballs, when fired into the air, move in hyperbolic motions. Taking this one step further he also showed that a feather and a led ball fall at the same rate, thus laying the foundation for Newton and his work on gravity. Isaac Newton, an English scientist is probably one of the most well known scientists in history. Building on Galileo’s work, he developed a theory on gravity and also developed laws in regards to physics amongst many other discoveries (Damerow, 2012). The important thing to note about the aforementioned information is that each scientist is from a different place in Europe. Without publication of their findings and theories, along with the printing press allowing mass production for distribution, the knowledge might not have been present for the subsequent scientist to build off of. This again points to the value of the printing press in the sharing of knowledge and thus the progressions in scientific work.

Consider the Muslims. Operating free from religious restraint the Muslims had been questioning God and making scientific discoveries for centuries prior to the Renaissance. For example, Jabir Ibn Hayyan (721-815 CE) developed experimental chemistry. Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039 CE) worked in mathematics and optics but is credited with developing in the scientific theory works he read from the Greeks (Jackson, 24 January 2013). However, they never experienced the explosion of knowledge like that seen in during the Enlightenment, which was post printing press development. While they made great advances in science, these advances were based off prior knowledge such as the advances made during the Enlightenment, as demonstrated by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. This illustrates that even with the religious freedom and the social values of the Muslims, it took communication of prior knowledge for them to continue to develop theories and new knowledge. Which in turn accentuates the point that development of the printing press was really the key driving force behind early experimental science and further development of scientific theories in Europe during the Renaissance.

Merton proposed with his thesis that the rise of early experimental science in early-modern England, and thus the Enlightenment, could be linked to the social behaviors valued by the Puritanism of that milieu (Thomas, 2011). A reasonable observation given that the rapid progression of the educational world was sparked shortly thereafter. However, think about the Protestant Reformation, the printing press and the rise of early experimental science like a car, with the Reformation being the car itself and the printing press being the fuel. While you have the body sitting there ready for movement forward, it can be propelled faster with fuel. That being said, with the Protestant Reformation being present at the origin of this rise in experimentation in science, it is reasonable to believe that some scientific theories could have developed from this newfound freedom for scientists. However, it was really the printing press that got things moving and allowed the explosion of knowledge.

The printing press was an accelerant for the four steps of the education and communication process. It allowed many more people to read and evaluate other’s work in a much shorter period of time than in the past, which in turn allowed for them to begin asking their own questions, manipulating that knowledge for a new discovery, then sharing it with the world for the process to be repeated and built upon. Essentially like a snowball effect, similar to that of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Copernicus got the ball rolling with his theory, Kepler added to it, Galileo confirmed it and opened the door for Newton to make other discoveries. In addition, with mass textual communication, the printing press allowed greater numbers of people to acquire the knowledge thus allowing more minds to jump on the case and begin working on new theories. It has been shown throughout history that the more minds we have working on something, the faster progress will be made. Universities only added to this as more and more people were receiving a higher education and taking part in the composition, acquisition and distribution of knowledge. Therefore, for one to say that the rise of early experimental science could be thought of as strictly an effect of the Protestant Reformation, they would not be considering all of the external factors that played a more significant role in the procurement and circulation of information during that time period.





Page Author: AJ Lakey

22-Feb-2013 09:49



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