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?

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