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States of secrecy: an introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2012

CNRS (Laboratoire SPHERE, UMR 7219); Univ Paris Diderot, Sorbonne, Paris Cité, 5 rue Thomas Mann – Case 7093, 75205 Paris Cedex 13, France. Email:
Hunter College, Department of History, West Building Room 1512, 695 Park Ave, New York, NY 11101, USA. Email:


This introductory article provides an overview of the historiography of scientific secrecy from J.D. Bernal and Robert Merton to this day. It reviews how historians and sociologists of science have explored the role of secrets in commercial and government-sponsored scientific research through the ages. Whether focusing on the medieval, early modern or modern periods, much of this historiography has conceptualized scientific secrets as valuable intellectual property that helps entrepreneurs and autocratic governments gain economic or military advantage over competitors. Following Georg Simmel and Max Weber, this article offers an alternative interpretation of secrecy as a tool to organize and to hierarchically order society. In this view, the knowledge content of secrecy is less important than its social-psychological effects. The authors argue that, in many instances, entrepreneurial researchers and governments use scientific secrets as an effective tool to manipulate the beliefs of their competitors and the larger public, and not necessarily to protect the knowledge that they hold.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2012

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63 Eamon, op. cit. (4), Chapter 8. For the emergence of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century metaphor of the natural inquirer as seeking secrets contained inside the naked body of a personified female Nature, see also Katharine Park, ‘From the secrets of women to the secrets of nature’, in Jane Donawerth and Adele Seeff (eds.), Crossing Boundaries: Attending to Early Modern Women, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000, pp. 29–47.

64 There is an interesting comparison to be made between the figure of the trickster and contemporary scientists, for instance in their use of technology to outwit nature, in their moral ambiguity, and in their goals, working to further their own interests or for the common good. For the trickster see, for example, Hyde, Lewis, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998Google Scholar.

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