Latour rethinks the social construction of science

Bruno Latour, an eminent figure in social studies of science and science policy, writes Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern in Critical Inquiry 2004 30(2).

Wars. So many wars. Wars outside and wars inside. Cultural wars, science wars, and wars against terrorists. Wars against poverty and wars against the poor. Wars against ignorance and wars out of ignorance. My question is simple: Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins? Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destructions? More iconoclasm to iconoclasm? What has become of critical spirit? Has it not run out of steam?

Quite simply, my worry is that it might not be aligned to the right target. To remain in the metaphorical atmosphere of the time, military experts constantly revise their strategic doctrines, their contingency plans, the size, direction, technology of their projectiles, of their smart bombs, of their missiles: I wonder why we, we alone, would be saved from those sort of revisions. It does not seem to me that we have been as quick, in academe, to prepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets. Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly continue to do the same gesture when everything else has changed around them? Would it not be rather terrible if we were still training young kids–yes, young recruits, young cadets–for wars that cannot be thought, for fighting enemies long gone, for conquering territories that no longer exist and leaving them ill-equipped in the face of threats we have not anticipated, for which we are so thoroughly disarmed? Generals have always been accused of being on the ready one war late–especially French generals, especially these days; what would be so surprising, after all, if intellectuals were also one war late, one critique late–especially French intellectuals, especially now? It has been a long time, after all, since intellectuals have stopped being in the vanguard of things to come. Indeed, it has been a long time now since the very notion of the avant-garde–the proletariat, the artistic–has passed away, has been pushed aside by other forces, moved to the rear guard, or may be lumped with the baggage train. We are still able to go through the motions of a critical avant-garde, but is not the spirit gone?

In this most depressing of times, these are some of the issues I want to press not to depress the reader but to press ahead, to redirect our meager capacities as fast as possible. To prove my point, I have not exactly facts rather tiny cues, nagging doubts, disturbing telltale signs. What has become of critique, I wonder, when the New York Times runs the following story?

“Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a lobbyist for the Republicans] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that “the scientific debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,” he writes, “their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”

Fancy that? An artificially maintained scientific controversy to favor a “brown backlash” as Paul Ehrlich would say.  Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the “lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact–as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past–but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?

3 thoughts on “Latour rethinks the social construction of science”

  1. Hello,
    I like the standing point of Bruno Latour. He sees what I call the “emergence of process”. Facts are produced by the interaction of process and content. The process referes to the way facts are build and then produced in the semantic field. Content referes to the reality of which the speaker (or writer or any producer of information) is talking about.
    What Latour underlines is the fact that the process is at least as much important as the content. An insight on the process gives a strategic point of view on what is being said without being naive. It also allows to be autonomous ie gives the permission to think on your own. The fact is that they are emerging places where you can do that with the needed protections especially in virtual worlds.
    Practicing this new approach in those protected areas allows persons to transfert it in the “real world”. Both are progressively merging, the process emerging in them and thus creating a new universe.

  2. Just finished my Masters in Education (see thesis website Input and output “strategies” do not work so well when we are interconnected and the feedback loops become smaller and smaller. But that could be the saving grace.

    “Educating” and distancing children at an early age through scientific methodologies, to train them as “independent” “critical” thinkers, when they still feel undifferentiated and inter-connected with the world, no longer makes sense.

    Let them be poets before they are scientists. Then they can teach us how to feel our way into the world again.

  3. Latour is NOT doing anything of the sort. He’s just reiterating what he’s been arguing for a long time. See We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora’s Hope, or Reassembling the Social. Or better yet TRY READING BEYOND halfway down the 3RD page of a 24 PAGE ARTICLE.

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