Bruno Latour on science

The CBC documentary series Ideas did a 24-part series entitled How To Think About Science. In Part 5, Bruno Latour said this:

When I did this work on science practices, no one understood it. It was taken as a “debunking” of science. So I was very interested because I never though that that had to be debunked. I though it had to be studied and described, but not – debunking never interested me. And yet it was taken by people as debunking. So I became very interested in that argument – why is that people, when you describe science, […] people believe it is a debunking? So what’s their idea of society when a description of science becomes a threat?

This question was a response to the backlash that he received because of his first book, entitled Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact, based on his use of the term “social construction” to indicate the book’s focus on the social aspects of scientific practice. He indicated that it was never his intention to debunk science, and that he only intended to enrich science by providing a more thorough and socially-grounded explanation of how science is actually done. After people began expressing distaste at the idea that scientific fact could be “socially constructed,” he came to realize that the possibility of this distaste is predicated on a dualistic view of the world that posited a sharp demarcation between nature and culture. Under this paradigm, science can be viewed as purely rational, and consequently a mere description of nature unaffected by the messy social influences of culture. Thus, a description of scientific facts as being socially constructed threatens to make science “disappear,” because it does not fit neatly into the nature/culture paradigm. (Compare arguments that gender is socially constructed; opponents of this view often feel as though traditional gender roles are in danger of disappearing. Because the view of gender as being “natural” rather than “social” fits so well into a dualistic nature/culture worldview, the acceptance of a paradigm that legitimates social influences on gender is hard to swallow, despite it’s being ostensibly more thorough.) Not surprisingly, Latour suggested that the split between nature and culture is merely political, and that it serves institutions that are in a position to benefit from speaking for one side or the other: science for nature, and politics for culture. I’ve repeatedly stated, here and elsewhere, that the nature/culture dualism is frustratingly normalized, and that things that are posited as purely in the realm of one or the other are almost always affected by a combination of both. I agree with him that overcoming this false dichotomy is a critical project. Latour seems unduly optimistic, though, when he suggests that, in David Cayley’s words, “this myth […] is now clearly finished, undone by an ecological crisis in which human and non-human agencies are clearly blended” (namely, global warming). This may be the case in philosophy of science circles, as it seems to be in academic feminist ones, but I think this dualism still underscores a vast majority of people’s understanding of the world and serves as the basis of their decision making about issues that affect it, and that fact legitimates the existence of, for instance, climate change deniers in the highest echelons of power.

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