Bruno Latour Is Back To Save Science

Bruno Latour Is Back To Save Science November 1, 2018

Move over, debunkers. Latour is back, and the conspiracists are in trouble.

The unlikely savior of science in the not so new millennium is Bruno Latour, the French philosopher infamous for “deconstructing” science with his sociological approach. Latour thinks the current controversies about climate change and vaccination are the predictable result of emphasizing the authority of science rather than its methodology.

How Objectivity is Made

In a New York Times article from last week, Ava Kofman interviews Latour and reviews why his work was so momentous and controversial. Scientific inquiry is such an important aspect of modern civilization that science is commonly idealized as a noble quest to uncover the Truth, independent of cultural or personal interests, with built-in features to eliminate bias and correct error. In Laboratory Life, published in 1979, Latour and his colleague Steve Woolgar chronicled their time spent at the Jonas Salk Institute observing how scientists work. This anthropological perspective portrayed science as a collective human endeavor characterized by politics, contingency and compromise.  In essence, Latour revealed “the intricate, mundane labor involved in the manufacture of objectivity.”

Science fans still see Latour as a heretic and a crackpot. Their pop science poobahs dismiss SSK (Latour’s approach, the sociology of scientific knowledge) as confused, pretentious nonsense. However, their disdain for Latour’s ideas derives from their discomfort with science being portrayed as a social practice, with all the bias, messiness and vested interests of any other. The authority of science, to the science cheerleader, resides in its commitment to the objective truth and its basis in evidence. “Nothing is more sacred than the facts,” Sam Harris famously said. Latour, like any good heretic, revealed that the sacred is a human creation; scientists create facts through the process of inquiry.

Inquiry and Authority

In our supposedly “post-truth” era, people are quick to point the finger at Latour for weakening the authority of science enough to allow conspiracists and deniers to thrive. The logic goes like this: Latour and his ilk attacked the objectivity of science with a bunch of relativist-sounding anything-goes criticisms, so deniers now believe that science and knowledge are just a matter of opinion.

If that seems facile to you, it’s because it is.

People don’t realize that Latour is saying the exact opposite of what his pop-science detractors have him saying. He’s saying that the authority of science derives from its identity as a social practice, and that the status of scientific ideas in public discourse depend greatly on the interests and expectations of the people receiving them:

What journalists, scientists and other experts fail to grasp, Latour argues, is that “facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” With the rise of alternative facts, it has become clear that whether or not a statement is believed depends far less on its veracity than on the conditions of its “construction” — that is, who is making it, to whom it’s being addressed and from which institutions it emerges and is made visible. A greater understanding of the circumstances out of which misinformation arises and the communities in which it takes root, Latour contends, will better equip us to combat it.

Ironically enough, it’s the people who consider the authority of science unquestionable and self-evident who have paved the way for the conspiracists. People who deny climate change or who consider vaccines harmful have the same oversimplified view of science pushed by science cheerleaders, and they just think they can cherry-pick whatever “expert” tells them what they want to hear. Neither wants to admit that science is a messy human endeavor that involves politics, argumentation, and compromise; they think science is all about the “evidence.”

The Global Warming Debate Heats Up

Unfortunately, this came to a head during the Climategate controversy, when emails hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia showed climate scientists communicating and acting in ways that seemed much less noble and disinterested than those with an idealized view of scientific inquiry would expect. Latour considers the incident proof that facts don’t speak for themselves; anyone who didn’t realize by that point that politics and negotiation are features rather than flaws of science needs to shed the rose-colored glasses.

Some might see this discouraging episode as a reason to back away from a more openly pugnacious approach on the part of scientists. Latour does not. As pleasing as it might be to return to a heroic vision of science, attacks like these — which exploit our culture’s longstanding division between a politics up for debate and a science “beyond dispute” — are not going away.

So the way we have to deal with conspiracists who freak out when they’re exposed to the way science really works isn’t just to deride and debunk. We can’t just treat the words scientific consensus like a magic incantation that’s supposed to settle all debate. Particularly when it comes to climate change, the need for action is so desperate that we have to deal politically with deniers and not just assume that the facts have the power to compel people to renounce dissent.

At a meeting between French industrialists and a climatologist a few years ago, Latour was struck when he heard the scientist defend his results not on the basis of the unimpeachable authority of science but by laying out to his audience his manufacturing secrets: “the large number of researchers involved in climate analysis, the complex system for verifying data, the articles and reports, the principle of peer evaluation, the vast network of weather stations, floating weather buoys, satellites and computers that ensure the flow of information.” The climate denialists, by contrast, the scientist said, had none of this institutional architecture. Latour realized he was witnessing the beginnings a seismic rhetorical shift: from scientists appealing to transcendent, capital-T Truth to touting the robust networks through which truth is, and has always been, established.

What do you think? Are science fans right about Latour, or has he had the right idea the whole time? Is the tendency to idealize science an obstacle to dealing with conspiracists? Should science be above politics, or so we have to realize the political context of things like climate change denial and anti-vaxx sentiment?

"Climate change isn't a religious problem per se, but manipulating religious belief among voters to ..."

Hell Freezes Over: Shem Gives Props ..."
"Like I said, though, you weren't an "atheist" toward all the other gods, you rejected ..."

Hell Freezes Over: Shem Gives Props ..."
""I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you ..."

Hell Freezes Over: Shem Gives Props ..."
"Climate change isn't a religious problem per se, but manipulating religious belief among voters to ..."

Hell Freezes Over: Shem Gives Props ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • chemical

    It’s interesting that Latour (and Shem) focus on the methodology rather than the authority of science.

    I have a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, but occasionally I had to do some science, and I understand what Latour is talking about when he says it’s built on politics, contingency, and compromise. Behind the scenes it can get a bit messy when scientists start delving into a new field, and multiple interpretations are credible.

    I think the main issue here is assigning terms like “politics” and “compromise” to the methodology, because it makes it look like politics. Most people, even fans of science, only see the end result of what it produces, which is facts, which makes it seem kind of arbitrary. Actual politics kind of goes through the same thing, except the end result of that is policies and laws. But with actual politics, the layman gets to watch the process, and participate by voting. Science, however, has a steeper curve because it’s built on all the previous science, which you have to know before you participate.

  • TinnyWhistler

    What I find particularly fascinating is that right now with the Internet, that scientific process is more accessible than it has EVER been, especially with the more recent push toward open journals and efforts like Sci-Hub to bring down paywalls. You don’t have to subscribe to the correct journals or pay $30 a pop to get the exact same information that other scientists in the field get. Despite this, most people (myself included) don’t actually care to read the primary research and go down all the citation rabbit trails to get a complete understanding of the topic. Because it’s hard.

    What I find frustrating is that culturally, the reaction to realizing exactly how hard it is to be as informed as possible has largely been “It’s all false.” On the flip side, there’s also been a reaction that just concludes “it’s all true.” And thus the battle lines are drawn.

    Personally, i’d be happy if so many atheists stopped taking Christians at their word that they have to hold Science as Inerrant and Worthy of Worship if they don’t want to assign the same beliefs to the Bible. I’ve argued with some of them and it’s exhausting, if hilarious in its own way.

  • It’s worth noting that there are two different levels of “politics” we’re talking about in regards to science.

    Researchers have to make decisions about aligning themselves with competing schools of thought, and the patterns of authority and influence represent one form of politics. The other is politics in the social sense, because scientists can work in fields or for entities that have direct influence in our economy or culture.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • chemical

    Re. your last point: Generally speaking, I’ll only start throwing metaphorical punches if a Christian attacks a well-established branch of science, like evolution. Your satirical point is correct, after all — Science isn’t Inerrant and Worthy of Worship. Matter of fact, there is likely some things I believe that are scientific facts today that will be debunked X years from now.

    Also, when people don’t accept a particular scientific fact, a lot of times they don’t realize the process and the work that went into finding that fact out in the first place. I got into an argument with someone in meatspace once about c-decay (the idea that the speed of light has been slowing down since the beginning of time, popular with young earth creationists). So I explained how we know that the speed of light is constant, starting with Newton’s Laws of Motion, because it explains the relationship between mass, motion, momentum, and energy. Discuss attempts to measure light speed, attempts to find aether, Michelson-Morley experiment. And then go into relativity, and how Einstein came up with that, and what E=mc^2 means. It was like trying to stuff an ocean into a can of soda, but I did the best I could.

    So because of all of that, I was able to demonstrate that if the speed of light decreased, then all mass in the universe would lose a bit of energy, and that energy has to go somewhere, and we would be able to see it. Either that, or throw out the last 300 years of physics research. This is what I meant by concepts like “testable hypothesis”.

  • Also, when people don’t accept a particular scientific fact, a lot of times they don’t realize the process and the work that went into finding that fact out in the first place. I got into an argument with someone in meatspace once about c-decay (the idea that the speed of light has been slowing down since the beginning of time, popular with young earth creationists). So I explained how we know that the speed of light is constant, starting with Newton’s Laws of Motion, because it explains the relationship between mass, motion, momentum, and energy. Discuss attempts to measure light speed, attempts to find aether, Michelson-Morley experiment. And then go into relativity, and how Einstein came up with that, and what E=mc^2 means. It was like trying to stuff an ocean into a can of soda, but I did the best I could.

    Very well done. This is just what Latour is talking about, making these debates more than just science-fan factoid-wars. The more context you can provide, both in terms of historical development and the methodological log, the better chance you have of not talking past one another.

    The problem, as I’m sure you realize, isn’t just that most people aren’t as well-versed as you in the background of scientific facts; it’s that most people, particularly in the com-box, aren’t very good at maintaining such an involved and painstaking dialogue.

  • chemical

    I’m not even well versed in the background of a lot of scientific facts. My main field is chemistry. As an added bonus, you get a little physics knowledge when you learn chemistry. If the debate were about evolution, for example, I wouldn’t be able to provide that context, besides “Darwin studied these finches, see…”

    Another issue is that this takes a while. I spent about an hour explaining everything. The YEC preacher that this guy got the c-decay idea from probably spent 5 minutes thinking up the idea, using motivated reasoning. They can make up stuff far faster than us science cheerleaders can debunk it.

  • Priya Lynn

    “In our supposedly “post-truth” era, people are quick to point the
    finger at Latour for weakening the authority of science enough to allow
    conspiracists and deniers to thrive. The logic goes like this: Latour
    and his ilk attacked the objectivity of science with a bunch of
    relativist-sounding anything-goes criticisms, so deniers now believe
    that science and knowledge are just a matter of opinion.

    If that seems facile to you, it’s because it is.”

    It may be facile but the vast majority of the public is facile and they will take what Latour is saying as evidence that science and knowledge are just matters of opinion. Trying to explain nuance to the general public very rarely succeeds.

    “Ironically enough, it’s the people who consider the authority of science
    unquestionable and self-evident who have paved the way for the
    conspiracists. People who deny climate change or who consider vaccines
    harmful have the same oversimplified view of science pushed by science
    cheerleaders, and they just think they can cherry-pick whatever “expert”
    tells them what they want to hear. Neither wants to admit that science
    is a messy human endeavor that involves politics, argumentation, and
    compromise;”

    I can’t believe you wrote that! Have you never tried to argue climate change with a denier? They are constantly saying science is a messy human endeavor that involves politics, argumentation, and compromise. One of the go to argumenst of the deniers is that scientists fabricate the global warming story to get grant money and keep their jobs.

    ” he heard the scientist defend his results not on the basis of the
    unimpeachable authority of science but by laying out to his audience his
    manufacturing secrets: “the large number of researchers involved in
    climate analysis, the complex system for verifying data, the articles
    and reports, the principle of peer evaluation, the vast network of
    weather stations, floating weather buoys, satellites and computers that
    ensure the flow of information.””

    I regularly do that sort of thing in arguments with climate deniers and they just insist it either isn’t true or is still insufficient to make the conclusion that global warming is real. I don’t know what the solution is to convincing deniers but I don’t think Latour has any ideas that are going to improve the situation.

  • It may be facile but the vast majority of the public is facile and they will take what Latour is saying as evidence that science and knowledge are just matters of opinion. Trying to explain nuance to the general public very rarely succeeds.

    Well, it’s not like debunking has made the climate deniers go away. That’s why we’re still in this mess. If you feel more virtuous weaponizing science and having slappy fights with deniers, hey, good luck with that.

    Have you never tried to argue climate change with a denier? They are constantly saying science is a messy human endeavor that involves politics, argumentation, and compromise.

    The point is that that describes science perfectly. If we had a realistic appraisal of what’s involved in scientific inquiry, this wouldn’t be such a useful tool for deniers. But no, we have to whitewash and idealize science, and make silly claims like “it’s all about the evidence!”

    Letting the facts speak for themselves is working so well, we should totally just keep on doing what we’re doing.

  • Latour, like any good heretic, revealed that the sacred is a human creation; scientists create facts through the process of inquiry.

    Actually, my view is that scientists with integrity reveal facts rather than “create” them, which implies out of thin air.

  • It may be a semantic issue. Latour is talking about the network of scientists, institutions, academics, and science journalists, in short the entire cultural context in which these facts make sense. Just talking about “facts” like they’re sitting out there waiting to be discovered is sort of weird.

    Incidentally, why does creation imply making something out of thin air? When someone creates a piece of furniture, for instance, they use pre-existing materials, don’t they? The process of constructing scientific facts uses things like observations, measurements, speculations and arguments.

  • When I say facts are revealed, not created, I’m thinking of, like, gravity, which exists, is a fact, whether we know of it or not. When Newton et al. figured out the basics, they did not ”create” gravity’s underlying factuality but only ”revealed” it to the rest of us.

  • The problem is that making it sound like gravity just existed, exactly the way we conceptualize and notate it, and was just waiting for us to access its secrets, smells a little too much like religion or mysticism to me. It’s like saying that the English word gravity is just something that existed before people who spoke English were around to talk about the phenomenon.

    There’s hard work involved in creating and testing hypotheses, and lots of observations and competing lines of inquiry that are under the surface of this supposedly self-evident fact. Our scientific knowledge has the marks of the culture that produced it, just like every human endeavor under the sun.

  • Sorry, Shem, I can’t agree. To me, gravity did just exist. All the hard work that went into understanding it and explaining it had no effect whatsoever on the actualuties of gravity itself. It existed long before someone tried to empirically explain its properties and qualities. Nature is the creator, science the explainer (as best it can)

  • Sorry, Shem, I can’t agree. To me, gravity did just exist.

    I understand what you’re saying, Rick. But as someone who is so strongly opposed to believing things that aren’t verifiable, you must realize that there’s no real way to test that claim, don’t you?

    If you have opinions about how things were before humans were here, they’re based on knowledge generated by the human endeavor of scientific inquiry. We tend to forget how much of what we know about the universe is the result of hard work by countless researchers, and that what we believe is always subject to revision. We don’t have knowledge of reality unmediated by language or the constructs we’ve devised to study it.

  • ortcutt

    Social constructivism is the result of failure to recognize the claim/fact distinction. The term “fact” is an ambiguous term that can refer to either claims about the world (“claims”) or to the way the world is (“facts”). When Latour says scientists construct scientific facts, if you read “fact” as referring to claims, linguistic items that say how the world is, then it’s just a banality. Writing a scientific paper is the activity of constructing claims. True, but uninteresting. If you read “fact” as referring to how the world is, then social constructivism is just obviously false. The electron has a −1.6021766208(98)×10−19 C charge. There is nothing socially dependent about that. That’s not socially constructed. Electrons have had the same charge for billions of years during which there were no humans to make claims about electrons. Of course, social facts like that a $5 bill is worth $5, are dependent on facts about society, but that is just another banality. It’s really remarkable that such a bad theory could have stuck around for so long based on the failure to make such a basic distinction as the claim/fact distinction. Paul Boghossian has written a very good short book making these points in devastatingly precise terms, “Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism”

  • “Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers.'” -https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-39054778

    “Many scientific studies cannot be replicated and this is symptomatic of a wider crisis in basic research, say scientists..” -http://sciencenordic.com/basic-research-crisis-many-results-cannot-be-replicated

  • chemical

    You misquoted the article, it’s actually titled “Most Jehovah’s Witnesses get wrecked because they only read the headlines and don’t realize that a failure to replicate a result means you go back to the drawing board and figure out what happened, because they have a need to feel superior because they pray instead of using actual evidence-based medicine”

  • Being wrong isn’t a crime so you’re free to go . . .

  • Dude. Enough with the memes.

  • I’ll sure miss you.

  • Social constructivism is the result of failure to recognize the claim/fact distinction.

    Like most philosophers of the 60s and 70s, the social constructivists wondered how relevant such a distinction truly is. If the claim is valid according to our modes of inquiry, then it’s useful to us. Its utility to us is contingent and contextual. Newtonian physics is extremely useful and fulfills testable predictions in a variety of contexts; the fact that it’s not quote-unquote-true should give us pause about declaring that our currently accepted scientific constructs mirror reality.

    How exactly do you establish how the world is independent of the means we use to model, study, and test it?

    The electron has a −1.6021766208(98)×10−19 C charge. There is nothing socially dependent about that. That’s not socially constructed.

    You mean it’s just self-evidently true? Or is it a fact about the world that we understand through the work of countless researchers and theorists? It’s not like electrons were just waiting for us to discover them, they’re part of the way we explain the results of experiments. We have technology that fulfills our society’s needs, and our understanding of reality is always conditioned by the means we use to study it.

  • ortcutt

    The claim/fact distinction is a very useful distinction because it keeps people from making really dumb errors like thinking the charge of an electron is socially constructed. The sentence “The electron has a −1.6021766208(98)×10−19 C charge” is a claim. It’s a collection of words and numbers on a page.
    It’s not an electron. It’s not the charge of an electron. Scientists construct claims, usually in networks of claims that we call theories. The fact that the electron has a −1.6021766208(98)×10−19 C charge is not a collection of words and numbers on a page. It’s part of how the world is.

    Our theories all lie on the claim side of the claim/fact distinction. (Of course, they create new facts, like the fact that Ortcutt claimed that the electron has a −1.6021766208(98)×10−19 C charge.) The facts don’t care whether our claims about them are true or not though. There is a way the world is. Our endeavor is to make true claims and not make false ones about that world.

    The claim isn’t self-evidently true. A lot of very detailed research went into establishing of the truth of the claim. You can read up about the Millikan oil-drop experiment if you like and a lot of much more precise measurements have been undertaken since then. Yes, electrons were waiting there for us to discover them. Do you think there were no electrons before there were people to study them? When do you think electrons first popped into existence? When people were first electrically shocked, or when J.J. Thomson discovered cathode rays were particles or when George Johnstone Stoney coined the term? I wish the social constructivists would answer these burning questions.

  • Yes, electrons were waiting there for us to discover them. Do you think there were no electrons before there were people to study them? When do you think electrons first popped into existence? When people were first electrically shocked, or when J.J. Thomson discovered cathode rays were particles or when George Johnstone Stoney coined the term? I wish the social constructivists would answer these burning questions.

    Well, I wish blowhards like you would listen when we answer these questions. I already said that things like electrons are the way we explain the results of certain experiments. They’re extremely useful ways to conceptualize phenomena. But it’s irrelevant whether they existed before we had the need to use them to conceptualize phenomena. If they’re useful to us, what should it matter whether they exist independently of the need we have for them? Who’s guilty of failing to recognize the claim/fact distinction, if not the person who asserts that the claim’s usefulness magically establishes the truth of the fact?

    I asked a burning question in my last post: How exactly do you establish how the world is independent of the means we use to model, study, and test it? I’d still like to know the answer to that one.

  • I understand that human intelligence is a very qualified thing sometimes, but this rather nihilist approach to everything scientific seems very destabilizing and fundamentally unhelpful for no good reason. For example, we need to trust certain ideas that have been long tested, like that a bowling ball dropped on your foot causes pain, and that science has a lot to say about how that all happens that informs our lives in practical, realistic ways. Sure, we can argue that maybe science has made some as-yet-unexplained or even unnoticed blunder and the experts are just wrong about gravity, which, of course, I’m always open to with evidence that’s better and more convincing than what we have now. But it seems to me the most resonable way to live our lives is to choose to follow the best apparent contemporary explanation for things, while leaving open the possibility that that might be debunked in the future. Otherwise, we have kind of what we have with Trump lovers, they just reject everything not Trump for the worst of reasons — some charming charlatan says so. We need to believe our lying eyes more than someone else’s. In my view, even with its imperfections, evidentiary science is a far more solid vehicle for navigating our existence than rejecting everything that isn’t absolutely certain. Like with picking a wife, there’s always a rationally best choice (which factors in the erotic), whether it all works out or not in the end.

  • Quite honestly, Rick, I don’t think you’re being fair here. I’ve never argued for anything that could be considered nihilism, and I don’t think that we should “reject anything that isn’t absolutely certain.” I happen to believe that meaning and value are important matters to humans and to society. My skepticism about scientific inquiry has never, not once, caused me to accommodate conspiracism or science denial on any of the boards I’ve managed.

    I think I need to more emphatically make a distinction between science and a scientific worldview. I don’t deny that science has created a picture of reality that’s stunning in its complexity and self-organization. However, I think the adoption of a scientific worldview is a capitulation to our biases. There are plenty of things in our lives, our history, and our culture that aren’t scientific matters; the idea that reality is the sum total of data points about the matter in the universe leaves a lot unexplained.

    I guess you were annoyed that I don’t consider science some sort of portal to reality. I’m sorry, I just see the idea that science presents the mirror image of reality as something that destroys freethought and shuts down our curiosity about phenomena. Once we start thinking that the way we happen to conceptualize gravity corresponds exactly to the way gravity is, we’re not open to other ways of thinking or theorizing about it. If we at least admit that gravity is just the way we find useful to talk about phenomena—a way that wouldn’t have been conceivable or useful to our ancestors—then we have a realistic appreciation for different approaches to knowledge. That’s what freethought is all about.

    Once again, I thank you for your input. I always appreciate your contributions here.

  • Sorry, Shem, I wasn’t impuning you, personally, just postmodernist ideology in general. I don’t see you as a science nihilist but as a sharp-thinking skeptic who really likes to go deep. My bias, which I like to think is a reasonably defensible one, is that there really are material answers to every question “out there,” and that if we don’t perceive them yet it’s because we lack information. Of course, Christians, say, think the same thing about faith. The difference, in my view, is that there actually area lot of material answers already readily available, which strongly implies others just out of reach (as much of science once was). So, I tend to have far more confidence in the “truths” of empirical data reinforced by much testing over time that strictly imaginery constructs that give, in my view, way to much weight to the power of imagination and intellectualizing over substantive reality. So, where I realize we must sense reality through a lot of illusions, sensory confusions and intellectual skimpiness, it very much seems to me the best representation of reality we have access to at the moment. I will be skeptical but understanding. Trust but verify, as they say. 😉

  • With the rise of alternative facts, it has become clear that whether or not a statement is believed depends far less on its veracity than on the conditions of its “construction” — that is, who is making it, to whom it’s being addressed and from which institutions it emerges and is made visible.

    Latour’s assertion that culture and social institutions are important in how Western science is practiced and knowledge arises seems reasonable. We really are a social species and, for the most part, social constraints cannot be escaped. That said, the power of alt-facts to sweep real facts and sound reasoning aside is breathtaking. Objective facts are objective facts and no amount of culture or socialization can change that. Irrational disbelief is irrational disbelief.

    In the last few years the amazing weakness of facts and logic in science that implicate politics, e.g., beliefs about climate change and vaccines, has become painfully obvious. Some years ago, it became apparent that facts and logic alone have essentially no power to lead people to renounce or even soften irrational dissent. That belief is based on multiple instances direct personal experience and on observing others in the same situation.

    If all it takes to sometimes reverse objectively irrational beliefs about politically-charged science is an honest, detailed description of how science is done and its fallibilities, then that is, IMHO, a major breakthrough and insight. There seemed to be no simple way to deal with politically-related irrationality. That said, did the tactic of trying to socialize climate science or vaccine data actually work to change anyone’s mind? In other words, is socializing and contextualizing science a hypothesis or supported by solid a body of empirical evidence?

    From my political pragmatist, rationalist-realist point of view, it shouldn’t matter where the solution to a problem comes from. If Latour is onto something, then good for him. It would be amazing and wonderful if the “seismic rhetorical shift: from scientists appealing to transcendent, capital-T Truth to touting the robust networks through which truth is, and has always been, established” actually works to some non-trivial extent.

    Is there evidence this tactic is effective to a meaningful extent?

    Should science be above politics, or so we have to realize the political context of things like climate change denial and anti-vaxx sentiment?

    Science needs to do whatever it takes within reason, i.e., not coercive, to be as effective as messy, intuitive, morally intolerant, heavily biased humans and societies can be. If recognizing and conceding the political context and fallibility of science works to more efficiently infuse the benefits of science to societies and individuals, then recognize it. If you are pragmatic about wanting to deal with this very serious social problem, it is a no-brainer to try whatever might work so long as it isn’t coercive.

  • It’s weird because I always think I’m giving science a lot of credit: I’m saying it’s not just a reality-detecting machine, it’s not just an algorithm. It’s a vast amount of research, collaboration, debate and argumentation that creates a picture that makes the staggering weirdness and complexity of our universe and our history comprehensible to us.

    And my skeptic alarm rings whenever people make pronouncements about reality. For a guy who constantly rails against people believing unverifiable claims, you don’t seem to have any problem making the epistemic leap from the utility of our scientific models to the truth of our scientific worldview. By what means can you verify how the world is independent of the means we use to model, study, and test it?

  • My problem, Shem, is I don’t see the utility of being overly skeptical of scientific claims to the point we simply don’t trust our senses as we should, since they’re our only tangible links with the real world. So what if what our senses tell us about reality may be fundamentally affected by their limitations? We still need to make “best-guess” choices to go about our lives. That doesn’t mean we stop considering what we might be missing, or what illusions might be at play, or whatever. I just say, the thing we call the “sun” feels very hot sometimes and (my dermatology bills attest) very much seem to cause skin cancers that can potentially kill me if I don’t choose to believe they will. Sure, all that’s contingent, but is very reliable and useful in the existence I inhabit. So I suspend most doubt until better information comes along. It just seems that in post-modernist thinking, proponents are extremely wary of even making contingent choices, doubting the apparency of everything. I find that exhausting to no good end. But I also understand that I may not ujnderstand the fundamental concepts all that clearly either. BTW, I do believe that “how the world is,” in a fundamental sense, is independent of our sense of it. It will keep turning whether or not we sense it, because the action is independent of sensory perception. A bullet will kill us whether or not we hear the shot.

  • Some years ago, it became apparent that facts and logic alone have essentially no power to lead people to renounce or even soften irrational dissent.

    Outside of the context of a science experiment or a jury trial, why would you expect facts and logic alone to compel people? We approach our knowledge not with factoids but with narratives full of values and emotions.

    Latour is trying to get us to approach scientific discourse as more than a factoid war. “Evidence” is just the tip of a vast iceberg that we need to acknowledge. You’re right, scientists and science writers should avoid being coercive. But they should emphasize that science is a social practice.

  • I don’t see the utility of being overly skeptical of scientific claims

    Well, I guess religious people aren’t the only ones that are selective in their skepticism. I’m fine with accepting the expert consensus regarding scientific matters. But as I said, if you’re going to push a scientific worldview where every belief has to be scrutinized and verified, then you sort of have a responsibility to answer questions and challenges to that worldview.

    I do believe that “how the world is,” in a fundamental sense, is independent of our sense of it. It will keep turning whether or not we sense it, because the action is independent of sensory perception.

    And like I keep asking, do you know this because you can verify how reality is independent of the tools we use to study it? Or is it because you call what science tells us reality?

    This goes a long way toward supporting my notion that the difference between religious folks and atheists isn’t really about evidence or critical thinking, it’s about what language games we like to play. We prefer descriptions of reality that have science words, that’s all.

  • “Outside of the context of a science experiment or a jury trial, why would you expect facts and logic alone to compel people?”

    Personal experience and poll data led me to think that. In my academic training and my entire professional life, fact and logic alone was compelling for essentially ALL the people I dealt with. No one questioned ‘valid’ data, unless the experimental protocol was called into question. Data interpretations were more often open to disagreement. Of course, that personal experience was in the context of academic science-based basic research or commercial drug development, so it is just anecdotal.

    Poll data suggests that most people accept most science findings most of the time, except in situations where the science has been politicized or religionized, e.g., GM food, climate change, vaccines, evolution.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/002834b48d188e0c304b6c51aaa72cc7f4c7383e7a11f73d66be7ee2e6a247cb.png http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/12/08/mixed-messages-about-public-trust-in-science/
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ad704620e82fa551aa084e4f48f821e85b8a6770f1f0a4f6875c17434b60f747.png
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5f3f0b76a13ee1cddde6c25ed187a59cf22df7f4128ebc0cbafc34662226ca27.png

    “The University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College’s annual survey, released Wednesday, finds that 73 percent of Americans think there is “solid evidence” of climate change, while 60 percent of the population now think that human beings have an influence on how the climate is changing.” https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change-public-opinion-poll-2586062016.html

    Latour is trying to get us to approach scientific discourse as more than a factoid war. . . . . But they should emphasize that science is a social practice.”

    I understood that. The question here is clear: Does it work?

    Some time ago I gave up on participating in online discussions about climate change other than to point out that (i) I’m not a climate science expert and the topic is too complex for me to understand, (ii) I therefore accept the 97% expert consensus opinion about it and adopt it as my own, and (iii) will change my opinion when expert consensus changes. Any discussion beyond that was always pointless for people who deny climate change and/or a human role in it.

    I bet a dollar that if I were to go to a climate science denier website and argue (i) climate science works on the basis of it being a long-standing social practice by thousands of well-meaning, hard-working, sincere, basically honest people, and (ii) that social practice has led to vast improvements in hundreds of millions of people’s lives, especially over the last century, it would not change one mind. Not one.

    I’ve seen those minds in operation up close and in person. Those minds do not change. The motivated reasoning oozing out of those folks is utterly impenetrable. They have invested far too much self-esteem and social value in rejecting climate science to ever change their minds. If what Latour was arguing actually had a non-trivial positive effect, that would be truly stunning. That is why I asked in my original comment: “Is there evidence this tactic is effective to a meaningful extent?”

  • Unless we’re scientists (or philosophers) doing what we do, why would the rest of us waste valuable time seriously questioning, for example, whether the earth rotates on its axis and orbits our star, as science has already exhaustively demonstrated with math, experiments, etc. Could they all be wrong? Of course. Is it likely? No, as far as it’s possible to know. Science, as far as it can, confirms that the reality we experience with our senses is also independently existant and “concrete,” regardless of our senses. Senses only access and perceive what is already there; they don’t change material reality (except perhaps in quantum physics, but even that seems a stretch). I am ready to embrace parallel universes, worm holes, supernatural spheres and the like, when better or any good evidence becomes available that humans are equipped to fairly assess. As you well know, I believe in evidence first, but rarely is it irrefutable, so we generally have to go with “best guess” scenarios based on the most compellng evidence at hand and then go on with our lives. To be constantly paranoid that we may be mistaken or things aren’t absolute would seem to rob us of a lot of energy we could be using to maximize our happiness and wonder. A scientific worldview, in my opinion, is the most rational worldview one can have among many other less exacting propositions. I don’t see this as semantic wordplay but practical life choices. So I go with evidence and critical thinking as far as it goes but then must necessarily make a choice about what seems most likely and practicable. I don’t lose any sleep over whether God exists or doesn’t (the available evidence is by far most compelling for the latter), or whether the universe is infinite or not (the former idea seems most convincing, and science concurs).

  • We should waste zero time trying to accommodate science deniers, who generally deny not because they have a good argument against the scientific evidence but that they have ulterior motives: lost fossil-fuels profit if climate change is deemed real, loss of religious justification for their lives if evolution is true, and inability to spare their children from vaccinations for religious reasons. Vaccinations are mandated in many places because not vaccinating puts whole populations at risk, not just the kids of addle-brained true believers in supernatural nonsense (and their parents). Scientific vs. supernatural arugments are pointless at reaching concensus because one view is permanently unconfirmable. At least science has a substantial plan.

  • As usual, there is at least one counter-argument. In this case it is simple: Climate science deniers control federal government and policy and time is very short.

    If Latour’s argument is at least somewhat effective, that would be a huge step forward.

    Vaccinations are mandated in many places because not vaccinating puts whole populations at risk, . . . .

    I was under the impression that populations of humans and other animals anywhere without herd immunity are at risk.

    Scientific vs. supernatural arguments are pointless at reaching consensus because one view is permanently unconfirmable.

    I was under the impression that, at least in the US, there is a large public consensus that vaccines are more good than bad. Here’s some early 2017 data:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7772c9bb2d099e3684efadc6ffddcb448a95a81c836d83dd3c035eff08411729.png http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/02/02/vast-majority-of-americans-say-benefits-of-childhood-vaccines-outweigh-risks/

  • In this sense, I use the term “consensus” as something with supporting laws that can’t be opted out of. Yes, sometimes we must argue with science deniers for political reasons, but I still resent it. Yes, non-vaccination risks everyone, but every risk doesn’t turn out to be a global pandemic like the 1918 flu.

  • abb3w

    Science fans still see Latour as a heretic and a crackpot.

    Can you give a particular contemporary example of someone expressing such a view?