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States of secrecy: an introduction


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.

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1 Pratchett, Terry, Going Postal, New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p. 128.

2 Hollinger, David, ‘The defense of democracy and Robert K. Merton's formulation of the scientific ethos’, Knowledge and Society (1983) 4, pp. 115.

3 Merton, Robert, ‘Science and technology in a democratic order’, Journal of Legal and Political Sociology (1942) 1, pp. 115126. The quote is from Bernal, J.D., The Social Function of Science, New York: Macmillan, 1939, pp. 150151.

4 Eamon, William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, Chapter 10. McMullin, Ernan, ‘Openness and secrecy in science: some notes on early history’, Science, Technology and Human Values (1985) 10, pp. 1423.

5 Bush, Vannevar, Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President, Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1945; Alex Wellerstein, ‘Knowledge and the bomb: nuclear secrecy in the United States, 1939–2008’, PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2010, AAT 3435567. See also Michael Aaron Dennis, ‘Reconstructing sociotechnical order: Vannevar Bush and US science policy’, in Sheila Jasanoff (ed.), States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and Social Order, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 225–253.

6 Shapin, Steven, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 113115.

7 Shils, Edward, The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies, Glencoe: The Free Press, 1956, p. 176.

8 Bok, Sissela, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 170. For an updated but similar view see Resnik, David, ‘Openness versus secrecy in scientific research’, Episteme (2006) 2, pp. 135147.

9 Polányi, Michael, ‘Patent reform’, Review of Economic Studies (1944) 11, pp. 6176; Johns, Adrian, ‘Intellectual property and the nature of science’, Cultural Studies (2006) 20, pp. 145164.

10 Cohen, H. Floris, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographic Inquiry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 200204; de Solla Price, Derek, Science since Babylon, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 117–135; McMullin, op. cit. (4); Hull, David, ‘Openness and secrecy in science: their origins and limitations’, Science, Technology and Human Values (1985) 10, pp. 413.

11 David, Paul, ‘The historical origins of “Open Science”: an essay on patronage, reputation and common agency contracting in the Scientific Revolution’, Capitalism and Society (2008) 3(2), Article 5.

12 Mokyr, Joel, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

13 For the Netherlands see Davids, Karel, ‘Openness or secrecy? Industrial espionage in the Dutch Republic’, Journal of European Economic History (1995) 24, pp. 333348.

14 See, for example, the bibliography up to 1985 which, apart from general background literature, is divided into two sections: ‘University/Industry relations’ and ‘National Security’. ‘Selected bibliography on openness and secrecy in science and technology’, Science, Technology, and Human Values (1985) 10, pp. 110–114.

15 On the spatial aspects of secrecy see Hannaway, Owen, ‘Laboratory design and the aim of science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe’, Isis (1986) 77, pp. 584610; Shackelford, Jole, ‘Tycho Brahe, laboratory design and the aim of science: reading plans in context’, Isis (1993) 84, pp. 211230; William R. Newman, ‘Alchemical symbolism and concealment: the chemical house of Libavius’, in Peter Galison and Emily Thompson (eds.), The Architecture of Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, pp. 59–77. See also Jackson, Myles W., Spectrum of Belief: Joseph von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, Chapter 3.

16 For an early example of such an inversion see Mitroff, Ian I., ‘Norms and counter-norms in a select group of the Apollo moon scientists: a case study of the ambivalence of scientists’, American Sociological Review (1974) 39, pp. 579595, esp. 592–593.

17 Long, Pamela, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. In a special issue edited by Karel Davids, a number of scholars have elaborated on the tradition of craft secrets. See Karel Davids (ed.), Early Science and Medicine (2005) 10, and especially Davids, Karel, ‘Craft secrecy in Europe in the early modern period: a comparative view’, Early Science and Medicine (2005) 10, pp. 341348. For a review of early modern secrecy see Macrakis, Kristie, ‘Confessing secrets: secret communication and the origins of modern science’, Intelligence and National Security (2010) 25, pp. 183197.

18 Epstein, Stephan, ‘Craft guilds, apprenticeship and technological change in preindustrial Europe’, Journal of Economic History (1998) 29, pp. 684713; Stephan Epstein and Maarten Prak, ‘Introduction: guilds, innovation, and the European economy, 1400–1800’, in Stephan Epstein and Maarten Prak (eds.), Guilds, Innovation, and the European Economy, 1400–1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 1–24.

19 Hilaire-Pérez, Liliane and Verna, Catherine, ‘Dissemination of technical knowledge in the Middle Ages and the early modern era: new approaches and methodological issues’, Technology and Culture (2006) 47, pp. 536565; Biagioli, Mario, ‘Patent republic: specifying inventions, constructing authors and rights’, Social Research (2003) 7, pp. 11291172.

20 Long, op. cit. (17), Chapter 4; Marcus Popplow, ‘Why draw pictures of machines? The social contexts of early modern machine drawings’, in Wolfgang Lefèvre (ed.), Picturing Machines 1400–1700, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004, pp. 17–48; David, op. cit. (11).

21 Margócsy, Daniel, ‘Advertising cadavers in the Republic of Letters: anatomical publications in early modern Netherlands’, BJHS (2009) 42, pp. 187210; Hilaire-Pérez, Liliane and Thébaud-Sorger, Marie, ‘Les techniques dans l'espace public. Publicité des inventions et littérature d'usage au XVIIIe siècle (France, Angleterre)’, Revue de synthèse (2006) 127, pp. 393428.

22 Long, op. cit. (17), Chapters 6 and 7.

23 Hilaire-Pérez, Liliane, L'invention technique au siècle des Lumières, Paris: Albin Michel, 2000.

24 Habermas, Jürgen, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der Bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1962; translated as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

25 For a first assessment see Broman, Thomas, ‘The Habermasian public sphere and science in the Enlightenment’, History of Science (1998) 36, pp. 123149. For an update, Terrall, Mary, ‘Public science in the Enlightenment’, Modern Intellectual History (2005) 2, pp. 265276; and Stewart, Larry, ‘Feedback loop: a review essay on the public sphere, pop culture and the early-modern sciences’, Canadian Journal of History (2007) 42, pp. 463483; Stewart, Larry and Gascoigne, John, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; Golinski, Jan, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette and Blondel, Christine (eds.), Science and Spectacle in the European Enlightenment, London: Ashgate, 2008; Secord, Anne, ‘Science in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire’, History of Science (1994) 32, pp. 269315; Roche, Daniel, Le siècle des Lumières en province: Académies et académiciens provinciaux, 1680–1789, Paris: Mouton, 1978; Stéphane Van Damme, ‘La sociabilité intellectuelle. Les usages historiographiques d'une notion’, Hypothèses (1997), pp. 121–132; Hochadel, Oliver, Öffentliche Wissenschaft. Elektrizität in der deutschen Aufklärung, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2003. For a revisionist account see Soll, Jacob, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

26 Diderot cited in Mason, J.H., The Irresistible Diderot, London: Quartet Books, 1982, p. 5. See also Hilaire-Pérez, Liliane, ‘Diderot's views on artists’ and inventors’ rights: invention, imitation and reputation’, BJHS (2002) 35, pp. 129150.

27 Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W., Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002 (first published 1944); Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

28 Hilaire-Pérez, op. cit. (26).

29 Walsh, John and Hong, Wei, ‘Secrecy is increasing in step with competition’, Nature (2003) 422, pp. 801802.

30 Proctor, Robert and Schiebinger, Londa (eds.), Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

31 Wright, Susan and Wallace, David, ‘Varieties of secrets and secret varieties: the case of biotechnology’, Politics and the Life Sciences (2000) 19, pp. 3345.

32 Waltz, Emily, ‘Under wraps’, Nature Biotechnology (2009) 27, pp. 880882.

33 Elliott, Sharon Mollman, ‘The threat from within: trade secret theft by employees’, Nature Biotechnology (2007) 25, pp. 293295; Medd, Kerry and Konski, Antoinette, ‘Workplace programs to protect trade secrets’, Nature Biotechnology (2003) 21, pp. 201203.

34 Caulfield, T. et al. , ‘Evidence and anecdotes: an analysis of human gene patenting controversies’, Nature Biotechnology (2006) 24, pp. 10911094; see also Stephen Hilgartner, ‘The Human Genome Project’, in Sheila Jasanoff et al. (eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1995, pp. 302–315.

35 Portuondo, María M., Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009; Zandvliet, Kees, Mapping for Money: Maps, Plans and Topographic Paintings and Their Role in Dutch Overseas Expansion During the 16th and 17th Centuries, Amsterdam: Batavian Lion, 1998; Schiebinger, Londa and Swan, Claudia (eds.), Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce and Politics in the Early Modern World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005; Reith, Reinhold. ‘Know-how, Technologietransfer und die Arcana artis im Mitteleuropa der frühen Neuzeit’, Early Science and Medicine (2005) 10, pp. 349377; Harris, John, Industrial Espionage and Technology Transfer: Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.

36 Galison, Peter, ‘Removing knowledge’, Critical Inquiry (2004) 31, pp. 195223.

37 For a recent overview see Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy, a special issue of Social Research (2010) 77.

38 Michael Aaron Dennis, ‘Secrecy and science revisited: from politics to historical practice and back’, in Judith Reppy (ed.), Secrecy and Knowledge Production, Cornell University Peace Studies Program Occasional Paper #23, 1999; Gordin, Michael, Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, p. 30.

39 Norris, Robert S., Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man, South Royalton: Steerforth Press, 2002, Chapters 12 and 13.

40 Gusterson, Hugh, People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

41 Information Security Oversight Office, 2009 Cost Report, Washington, DC, 2010.

42 Shorrock, Tim, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

43 Steven Aftergood, ‘Government secrecy and knowledge production’, in Judith Reppy, op. cit. (38); Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Secrecy: The American Experience, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998; Peter Galison and Rob Moss, Secrecy, Film Premiere: The Sundance Film Festival (2008).

44 For more recent work on science and secrets see the French–Portuguese journal Sigila, devoted to a transdisciplinary study of the secret, which has a 2005 special issue on science and secrets. Just before the current issue went into print, a new collective volume on secrets appeared: Leong, Elaine and Rankin, Alisha (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800, London: Ashgate, 2011.

45 Simmel, Georg, ‘The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies’, American Journal of Sociology (1906) 11, pp. 441498, esp. 462.

46 Simmel, op. cit. (45), p. 466, also describes the ‘joy of confession’, for instance, ‘which may contain that sense of power in negative and perverted form, as self-abasement and contrition’.

47 See, for instance, Giorgio Vasari's account of Jan van Eyck's sharing of his secret of oil painting. Gotlieb, Marc, ‘The painter's secret: invention and rivalry from Vasari to Balzac’, Art Bulletin (2002) 84, pp. 469490; Herzfeld, Michael, The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, Chapter 4.

48 For these books of secrets see Eamon, op. cit. (4), who is more sensitive than most to the dynamics of secrecy but does not devote much explicit reflection to it.

49 Harley, J.B., ‘Silences and secrecy: the hidden agenda of cartography in early modern Europe’, Imago mundi (1988) 40, pp. 5776.

50 Shils, op. cit. (7); Bok, op. cit. (8), p. 155; Luhrman, Tanya, ‘The magic of secrecy’, Ethos (1989) 17, pp. 131165.

51 Cited by Gordin, op. cit. (38), p. 31.

52 Shils, op. cit. (7), p. 221, argued that much of the ‘secret’ information of the government was in fact openly available and was often not worth keeping. It did not justify the ‘tremendous disturbance and degradation that America has suffered from its own zealots of secrecy’.

53 For a similar perspective see Haraszti, Miklós, The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism, New York: Basic Books, 1987.

54 Herzfeld, op. cit. (47), pp. 108–109.

55 For example, in Richardson, Laurel, ‘Secrecy and status: the social construction of forbidden relationships’, American Sociological Review (1988) 53, pp. 209219. See also the work of Slavoj Žižek for many examples of the complex psychodynamics of secrecy.

56 See, for example, Ku, Agnes, ‘Boundary politics in the public sphere: openness, secrecy, and leak’, Sociological Theory (1998) 16, pp. 172192. Urban, Hugh, ‘The torment of secrecy: ethical and epistemological problems in the study of esoteric traditions’, History of Religions (1998) 37, 209248.

57 Weber, Max, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958. Lisa Blank, ‘Two schools for secrecy’, in Jan Goldman and Susan Maret (eds.), Government Secrecy: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

58 Newman, William and Principe, Lawrence, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of the Helmontian Chymistry, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002.

59 In Eamon, op. cit. (4), p. 345.

60 Luhrman, op. cit. (50).

61 Urban, op. cit. (56).

62 For example, Nummedal, Tara, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007; Snyder, Jon, Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009; van Houdt, Toon et al. (eds.), On the Edge of Truth and Honesty: Principles and Strategies of Fraud and Deceit in the Early Modern Period, Leiden: Brill, 2002; Rob Iliffe, ‘Lying wonders and juggling tricks: nature and imposture in early modern England’, in J. Force and D. Katz (eds.), Everything Connects: In Conference with Richard H. Popkin. Essays in His Honor, Leiden: Brill, 1998, pp. 183–210.

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, 1998.

This special issue is based on the States of Secrecy conference at Harvard University, 8 April 2009. The editors would like to acknowledge the support of the Harvard Kennedy School's Science and Technology Program, Harvard's History of Science Department and its various working groups, and CLAW of the Institute of Philosophy, Leuven University. We are thankful to participants, commentators and the audience at this conference, especially to Kristie Macrakis, Daniel Juette, Marco Viniegra, Sheila Jasanoff, Michael Herzfeld, Katharine Park and Alisha Rankin. The authors of this introduction would also like to thank Ken Alder, Liliane Hilaire-Pérez and Adrian Johns. Alex Wellerstein has provided crucial support for this issue.

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