Bruno Latour

I came across an interesting interview with Bruno Latour, a sociologist with an interest in Science and Techology Studies (STS), who was involved with what has been called the “science wars”. I actually found much of what he said in the interview quite sensible. For example, he suggested that the earlier “science wars” were more a dispute than a war, but suggested that

[w]e’re in a totally different situation now. We are indeed at war. This war is run by a mix of big corporations and some scientists who deny climate change. They have a strong interest in the issue and a large influence on the population.

Part of my confusion about STS (which I’ve written about before) is that I had initially assumed that a key aspect of STS was about understanding how science and society could deal with science denial and with those whose agendas were mainly to undermine our scientific understanding. However, some of what I’ve seen from STS is more akin to enabling denial, than countering it. I have been told that this is more due a vocal minority, than some reflection of STS as a whole. If so, maybe the silent majority should really become a bit noiser, as Bruno Latour may be trying to do.

However, there were some parts of the interview that I found a little odd. For example, when discussing the “science wars”, Bruno Latour says

It was a dispute, caused by social scientists studying how science is done and being critical of this process. Our analyses triggered a reaction of people with an idealistic and unsustainable view of science who thought they were under attack.

I’ve been doing scientific research now for more than 25 years (I published my first scientific article in 1992). Until I started writing this blog a few years ago, I had never heard of STS. If STS researchers did indeed come up with valid criticisms of how science is done, I don’t think many who did scientific research took any notice. So, either they highlighted valid issues that have been ignored, or their critiques weren’t particularly compelling.

In fact, Bruno Latour goes on to say

Some of the critique was indeed ridiculous, and I was associated with that postmodern relativist stuff, I was put into that crowd by others. I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.

Well, yes, and this does seem to be a key issue (which Latour seems to mostly ignore). A good deal of what I’ve seen from STS has indeed been ridiculous, and it does indeed appear to be partly motivated by a desire to cut scientists down to size.

It is, of course, perfectly normal for a discipline to go through a phase where some of what is presented turns out to be ridiculous. However, the ideal is that as more and more information is collected, the more ridiculous ideas are rejected and the dicipline converges towards “emergent truths”. From what I’ve seen, the ridiculous elements of STS are still there. It’s not clear, to me at least, that they have somehow converged on some “emergent truths” about science and society.

It’s possible that this is not representative of the majority of STS and that the underlying principles are actually sound. However, how are we meant to know this if the ridiculous elements are over-represented in the public sphere? Maybe someone could do some kind of consensus study that highlights the majority view, and then communicates this to society and to the broader scientific community. The problem with this, of couse, is that according to some STS researchers consensus messaging is polarising and ineffective.

However, I did find the interview with Bruno Latour quite interesting and it is worth reading (it’s not very long). It may well be that STS does have a constructive and positive role to play. If they do, then – in my view – they will have to do a much better job than they’ve done to date.

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106 Responses to Bruno Latour

  1. dikranmarsupial says:

    There is some irony in the juxtaposition of “It was a dispute, caused by social scientists studying how science is done and being critical of this process.”and “I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.”! Motes and beams in eyes, and all that! ;o)

  2. Brigitte says:

    Did you see what he said in a rather patronising, deficit model kind of way, about climate scientists: “They were not equipped, intellectually, politically, and philosophically, to resist the attack of colleagues accusing them of being nothing more than a lobby.” Or have I misunderstood that?

  3. Brigitte,
    I did notice that and I think I was giving the benefit of the doubt. I can understand that one discipline (say, social sciences) might be better equipped to give advice about how to deal with something like that, than say another (physical sciences, for example). However, there will clearly be some physical scientists who are also very capable of dealing with things like that, and some social scientists whose contributions are not very constructive.

  4. Dikran,
    Indeed, he does seem to rather gloss over his own failings. Some credit for at least appearing to acknowledge them.

  5. Brigitte,
    I guess the other thing to say about Bruno Latour’s claim about not being equipped to deal with such accusations is that, even if true, it’s not clear that STS has provided any particularly effective remedies either.

  6. Brigitte says:

    Yes that’s true. However, some contributions to this debate by STS people were perhaps not really intended to better equip climate scientists to counter such accusations….

  7. Brigitte says:

    oups I didn’t see your comment before I posted mine!

  8. Brigitte,

    However, some contributions to this debate by STS people were perhaps not really intended to better equip climate scientists to counter such accusations….

    Indeed.

  9. izen says:

    @-“On issues with huge policy implications, you cannot produce unbiased data. ”

    Wrong. The data can be unbiased, the inferences drawn are not.

    @-” but scientists should explicitly state their interests, their values, and what sort of proof will make them change their mind.”

    Mind-changing evidence (proof??) is the key. That a scientist may be interested in hill climbing, or value open moorland over modern architecture is less relevent.

    @-” It is an illusion of certainty to state that we fully understand it, a remnant of the ideal of science.”

    That was always a straw-man. Our understanding is sufficient to state ‘facts’ that are established with a degree of certainty that makes it unreasonable to deny their reality.
    (shades of – evolution is the fact, Darwinian selection is the theory!)

  10. izen,
    Good points, and I also noticed the strawman about “fully understand it”. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a scientist who claim such a thing. It’s possible that some might say things publicly that make it seem that way, but you would expect researchers interested in science and society to help clarify such misconceptions, not make strawman arguments against them.

  11. WMC,
    I was aware of the Sokal Affair, but I’d never seen that article by Alan Sokal. Thanks.

  12. Bruno Latour: “I am again working on something like Laboratory Life—a combination of lab and field work in an area called the “critical zone,” the study of Earth’s outer skin. I will be observing geochemists, biochemists, and geopoliticians, and will talk to many different researchers, using a Lovelockian approach, assuming that Earth functions as a self-regulating system. And yes—I think that describing this work in detail will contribute to the rebuilding of trust in science.

    So in future he will rebuild trust in science with the religious Gaia “hypothesis” of the Earth? I loved the idea as a kid, but after decades of attempts it has still failed to become science.

    What could possibly go wrong.

    ATTP: “I actually found much of what he said in the interview quite sensible.

    Could you point to one of those claims?

    Brigitte says: “Did you see what he said in a rather patronising, deficit model kind of way, about climate scientists:

    If that is what he needs to switched side. His need to feel important is interesting. Given that he thought scientists were evil authorities that needed to be taken down a peg. And only now noticed that damaged a power check on the actual authorities. Seems like he only acceptable authority is Bruno Latour.

  13. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    Some of the critique was indeed ridiculous, and I was associated with that postmodern relativist stuff, I was put into that crowd by others. I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.

    I’m not often critiqued correctly, but when I am it’s because I’m speaking truth to scientists.

    Can’t help but be reminded of Judith Curry for some reason.

    Everyone’s a Galileo.

  14. Victor,

    ATTP: “I actually found much of what he said in the interview quite sensible.”

    Could you point to one of those claims?

    Maybe I was being too generous, but I thought this was okay

    We will have to regain some of the authority of science. That is the complete opposite from where we started doing science studies. Now, scientists have to win back respect. But the solution is the same: You need to present science as science in action. I agree that’s risky, because we make the uncertainties and controversies explicit.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding what he’s suggesting, but I do think that we should spend more time discussing the methods we use and also highlighting what we do know with confidence, and what we don’t.

  15. That is a good paragraph, I think I rejected it for the implicit message of the first sentence. It can always be better, but the authority of science is strong.

    The credibility of science is certainly higher than that of any of its enemies.

  16. Victor,
    Yes, I’d agree that the authority of science is stronger than the first sentence implies.

  17. dikranmarsupial says:

    ATTP indeed credit is due for that, never a pleasant activity, so should be applauded when it happens.

  18. Yvan Dutil says:

    Latour is just trying to ovoid his personal responsibility. After all, as a good intellectual, he must not admit he was wrong. The truth is that most of these intellectual exaggerate to importance of theory in science, compare to that of observation.

    This bias comes from there own background as they seen themselves has thinker and see those who gather data as mere technician. But the truth is, that in practice, the mere technician are the driver of the scientific knowledge.

    In physics, we have good experimental data that indicate that theoricists are mostly wrong when they are not feed with enough data. Since physics is «easy», this is a bad news for thinkers trying to tackle complex problems.

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    Eli thinks it wrong to say that the STS crowd wants to cut scientists down to size, what they want to do is control the dialog, be the gatekeepers. Even Roger Jr.

    http://mustelid.blogspot.ie/2005/11/rabett-vs-pielke.html

  20. Eli thinks it wrong to say that the STS crowd wants to cut scientists down to size, what they want to do is control the dialog, be the gatekeepers. Even Roger Jr.

    There is some of that, but I do think that there are some who feel that they’re being left out and want people to pay more attention to what they’re saying, and pay less attention to what scientists are saying. My own view is that if they want this they should try to say things worth paying attention to, rather than trying to get people to ignore what others are saying.

  21. Eli Rabett says:

    That’s a distinction without a difference

  22. Eli,
    Okay, that may be true.

  23. russellseitz says:

    It’s ironic Bruno should protest :
    “Some of the critique was indeed ridiculous, and I was associated with that postmodern relativist stuff, I was put into that crowd by others. I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.”

    less than a year after delivering a long polemi on the semiotics of climate change at a seminar here. It a drew a fair fraction of all the postmodern literary theorists East of the Hudson,, and sounded very much like his 1998 performance at the LSE.

    Maybe Watts will turn into a poststructuralist too- he’s already getting cold feet about Trump’s taste in NOAA executives :
    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2017/10/if-myers-is-disaster-whats-pruitt.html

  24. guthrie says:

    You should invite him to do a guest blog post and we can discuss it with him in the comments.

  25. wsscherk says:

    As always, good chatter can be had here. I think the remarks about corrigibility and arrogance leave the deepest impression: If Latour cannot be honest about his errors, he isn’t in a good position to criticize (or oversee) and kind of “science.”

    I wish him luck observing the skin of the earth sciences, though, and would love to read his next book — if it were titled: How Science Studies Get It Wrong Sometimes.

    All in all, glad to see him move beyond his old menu of august pronouncements. Progress!

  26. russellseitz says:

    To enliven the proceedings, invite Alan Sokal as well

  27. David B. Benson says:

    So far I find nothing of value in STS.

  28. dikranmarsupial says:

    I thought the name seemed familiar:

    “[Einsteins] obsession with transporting information through transformation without deformation; his passion for the precise superimposition of readings; his panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges, and send reports that could not be used to expand our knowledge; his desire to discipline the delegated observers and to turn them into dependent pieces of apparatus that do nothing but watch the coincidence of hands and notches…”

    Bruno Latour (apparently) discussing Einstein’s “twin paradox” thought-experiment, in which an identical twin sent of at near light speed to another star system finds on his return that the other has aged considerably more than himself, quoted from Massimo Pigliucci’s (jolly good) “Nonsense on Stilts – How to Tell Science from Bunk” (page 255).

    You know you have problems when the characters in your own thought-experiments can’t be relied upon do what they are told! ;o)

  29. wsscherk writes “If Latour cannot be honest about his errors, he isn’t in a good position to criticize (or oversee) and kind of “science.”

    It seems to me somewhat hubristic to set out to oversee some other field in any case. Collaboration would seem to me a more productive model for engagement if sharing insight were actually the aim (Steve Easterbrook’s investigation of software engineering in climate modelling being a really good example).

  30. Dikran,

    It seems to me somewhat hubristic to set out to oversee some other field in any case.

    I’ve never been all that comfortable with this myself. I can completely understand that people from different disciplines can do complementary work, and that they can do work that helps those in other disciplines. Philsophers can work with physicists to help physicists think more deeply about the under-pinnings of their discipline. Statisticians could work with psychologists to help them develop techniques for their research. Social scientists could work with climate scientists to help them understand how to better communicate their findings, etc. However, my impression of some of STS is that is seen as a form of policing scientists and I’ve never understood why some people seem to think they’re in a position to do any such thing.

  31. Dikran Marsupial says:

    I don’t see how you can police science without a very deep understanding of the science involved, otherwise it seems a slippery slope ending up with a Dellingpolian “interpreter of interpretations”.

  32. Dikran Marsupial says:

    Naturally it applies the other way round as well, for the same reasons; scientists can’t police musicology, or social science, or philosophy. Collaborate, yes, police/oversee, no.

  33. russellseitz says:

    ATTP observes:
    “there will clearly be some physical scientists who are also very capable of dealing with things like that, and some social scientists whose contributions are not very constructive.”

    Those well-pickled in the hermeneutic koolaid of Theory embrace deconstruction rather as a feature than a bug.

  34. Magma says:

    So Latour has finally retired after decades of building straw man arguments and then triumphantly knocking them down… the poor man must be exhausted.

  35. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Credit where credit is due.

    Here’s Latour reflecting on his own role in the “science wars”…

    http://winteranthology.com/?vol=5&author=latour&title=critique


    Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?


    …our critical equipment deserves as much critical scrutiny as the Pentagon budget.
    My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism. (p. 231)


    …cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude — to speak like William James. (p. 233)

    OK – It’s STS navel-gazing. But it’s more critical than your average STS navel-gazing.

  36. Willard says:

    Speaking of navel-gazing, another gem from AlanS:

    What matters is never the origin of an idea, but its content; intellectual laziness and posturing deserve to be criticized, wherever they come from.

    Posturing and laziness don’t look like a “content of an idea” to me.

  37. Magma says:

    It’s STS navel-gazing. But it’s more critical than your average STS navel-gazing. — The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse

  38. Willard says:

    Interestingly, Bruno’s interviewer cites Gross & Levitt 1994. The title contains “Academic Left,” which may indicate that it may deserve due diligence. And of course:

    We venture to predict that any scientist who has dabbled in these fields will feel some empathy with their position. Gross and Levitt cite a number of examples of fuzzy reasoning based on outrageous premises, accounts of scientific practice that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the practitioner’s views, and suspicion of scientific culture and its power, occasionally extending to downright hostility. They could easily have accumulated many more. However, by lumping all their perceived adversaries into a monolithic bloc (and assigning them a politically charged label), they make it virtually impossible to consider the merits of any individual cases. Instead, all attention is focused on the larger questions: Is there really a broad-based antiscience movement? Does it pose any serious threat? How should scientists relate to those colleagues who are interested but not expert in what they do? Unfortunately, under such scrutiny Gross and Levitt fare just about as badly with respect to logic and motivation as many of their targets.

    http://beckmaninstitute.caltech.edu/labinger/bookreviews/4highersuperstition.pdf

    Awaiting Gross & Levitt mea culpa, please help yourself with a rhetorical question about children’s memories.

  39. Willard says:

    One of the episodes of the so-called “science wars” involving Gross & Levitt started thus:

    In Higher Superstition, a book remarkable both for its influence on the intellectual community and for its obtuse ignorance of the actual state of science, the authors told us that

    Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise…. Reality is the overseer at one’s shoulder, ready to rap one’s knuckles or to spring the trap into which one has been led…by a too complacent reliance on mere surmise…. Reality is the unrelenting angel with whom scientists have agreed to wrestle.

    Any reader who wants to test this charmingly naive view of science should immerse himself or herself in the literature of evolutionary biology. Indeed, the immersion does not have to be very deep before the currents and countercurrents of ideology can be felt tugging at one’s understanding. Unto Others, a collaboration between Elliott Sober, one of the founders of the modern philosophy of biology, and David Sloan Wilson, one of the most creative theoreticians in evolutionary studies, wades into this turbulent stream at precisely the point where so many other adventurers have been swept away: the problem of the origin of altruistic behavior. Can natural selection have made us genuinely cooperative and unselfish in pursuit of the greater good of the many, or is apparent altruism nothing but an artfully disguised version of every man for himself? Have Professors Sober and Wilson really collaborated in order to spread enlightenment, or are they engaged only in a bit of academic career building, each using the other as a tool of their separate ambitions?

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1998/10/22/survival-of-the-nicest/

    I wouln’t tell you that the guy who wrote that is Richard Lewontin (because, you know, all that matters, pace AlanS, is “content”) if not for the fact that STS freaks never were alone in that fight.

  40. Willard says:

    Again speaking of “content,” this time about something more topical and important than old academic status fights:

  41. russellseitz says:

    “So Latour has finally retired after decades of building straw man arguments and then triumphantly knocking them down… the poor man must be exhausted.”

    Magma, he’s still teaching at Sciences Po and lecturing internationally fast as Air France can carry him

  42. Magma says:

    The interview in Science stated Latour had “retired last month from his official duties at Sciences Po”. But there’s always emeritus status, admirable in theory, but maybe not so much in practice.

  43. Mal Adapted says:

    Scientific knowledge is never the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but of all the ways human culture has evolved to explain the Universe and predict the future, only Science is more successful than divination with entrails. That’s because it’s first and foremost a way of trying not to fool ourselves. People who are determined to fool themselves, OTOH, don’t require justification by rigorous empirical evidence and intersubjective verification among competitive trained skeptics. It’s not surprising that wishful thinkers attack those nasty scientists, who seem to enjoy telling others they’re wrong.

  44. Roger Jones says:

    I posted this last night (my time) but it disappeared.

    Early Latour is useful, when he was observing scientific (lab) processes and trying to understand the sociological goings on. I have Science in Action from 1987, and it’s a good book. Later, he did join the pomo crowd. With bells on. He alludes to it, but glosses over his central role in it. If you believe his recent return to his former stance, revisited, a he kind of admits to playing, but he had crossed the line into harmful. A few years ago, he became aligned with the Breakthrough Institute and looked like he was going the full Ravetz, penning essays that could be read either way, full of double-edged meanings and points made that needed a dozen readings just to understand the ambiguities they raised.

    He wrote an essay called It’s the Development, Stupid ! or How Can we Modernize Modernization?, where he buys into Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s post-environmentalism strawman, based on the idea that Environmentalism was promoting green retreat of humans from Nature in order to preserve it, instead of it being a part of Green political ideology. That was based on the idea that the limits of Nature, being broached as part of the ecological crisis, had defined the limits of political economy through this ideology. Because the importance of ecological crisis had not been recognised at the core of political economy, this was Environmentalism’s fault and the fault of the Science aligned with it (capital ‘S’, yes Science as a monolith, which it surely is not). The idea of Breakthrough was not to limit civilisation by separating development and nature but to embrace development with all its technology and overcome those limits (i.e., magical thinking). This essay has lots of good points in it, but its core is rotten, a melange of pomo posturing, of Latour doing a dazzling display of interpretive dance to show how clever he is. At its core, this is the same game as blaming climate science because climate change is not being taken as seriously as it should be.

    According to Latour, this Science is two things, the divide invisible to the participants, of sociological and idealised sides: a morass of ideology, emotions and values on the one hand, and, on the other, stark and naked matters of fact. Because Latour, Nordhaus and Shellenberger understand ecology as an ideology but not as a science, they themselves have not understood the relationship between limits in ecology and limits in political ecology. No-one serious in the Earth System Sciences working on global change believes that the limits of ecology requires a lock-the-gate preservationist mentality. They realise the entwinement between nature and society and treat both in lower case, as they do science. Science might have trouble reconciling its own self-awareness with its purpose, understanding how narrative, theory, values and belief fit together, but it’s not to blame for either modernist or post-modernist failings in political economy.

    This has been slow in coming, but Latour is now waking up to the fact that science is under threat and its not Science’s fault. In his essay, he says values are at the forefront of everything. Yes. He brings up Ulrich Beck and the risk society; and the precautionary principle, which he supports, but you wouldn’t know, because he introduces it as a strange moral, legal, epistemological monster. He claims it was brought in because of a recognition of the limits of modernist Science. This is true, but it was brought in to manage environmental risk. By environmentalists, and scientists. And with that, his argument has turned in on itself and threatens to disapparate. If the silly bugger wasn’t trying so hard to show how clever he is and just tried to be clear, we’d all be better off.

  45. Roger,

    I posted this last night (my time) but it disappeared.

    Found it in spam. Don’t know why it sometimes does that, but it can happen on occasion.

  46. Eli Rabett says:

    It’s interesting how climate is a common ground for the physicists and the STS crowd to bash on. Maybe there are things they do not know

  47. Willard says:

    Interestingly, BrunoL sides with Eli in the following Les Inrocks interview:

    Quel est l’objectif de cet essai-pamphlet ? S’attache-t-il à nous expliquer pourquoi nous nous sentons perdus ?

    Que nous soyons perdus, je crois que je n’ai pas la peine de le dire. Tout le monde en a la sensation. Non, c’est beaucoup plus positif et finalement optimiste : la politique peut très bien reprendre un sens pourvu que nous passions de l’affirmation stridente des identités et des valeurs à la description du monde matériel auquel nous pensons quand nous exprimons nos opinions ou nos valeurs. C’est très simple, c’est passer de la politique comme expression de préférences sans justification précise, à la description d’un monde. Ce qu’on peut appeler une politique orientée objet. Dès que l’on passe des valeurs ou des opinions au monde, la direction de notre attention politique se modifie. C’était déjà le cas avec l’idéal de la globalisation. Sauf que celle-ci a explosé en vol. Il faut donc se réorienter. Tout ce que je dis est très élémentaire. Ce sont des problèmes très simples : avec qui voulez-vous cohabiter, où prétendez-vous atterrir, etc.

    http://www.lesinrocks.com/2017/10/15/actualite/bruno-latour-la-seule-politique-coherente-du-gouvernement-trump-est-lorganisation-du-deni-climatique-11996147/

    In that Q&A, BrunoL says that the main point of his last essay (featuring AGW, teh Donald, and populism) is to change our political viewpoints, based on values and preferences, so that it becomes “object-oriented,” grounded in a common description of reality.

    Which is not unrelated to what our Stoatness argues against MT, with the difference that instead of taking economics as the objective yardstick, BrunoL appeals both to the hard sciences and to common sense.

  48. Mal Adapted says:

    Roger Jones, thank you for the background on Latour.

    I can recommend a couple of books that resulted from the same interdisciplinary seminar at UC-Irvine in 1994: Reinventing Nature? Responses To Postmodern Deconstruction, edited by Michael E. Soulé and Gary Lease; and Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by environmental historian William Cronon.

    What I got out of PoMo through the mid-1990s is that yes, scientific knowledge is never wholly justified, because although science is a way of trying not to fool ourselves, even scientists who try really hard can still be fooled; but that ‘Science’ is as successful as it is because its full-time practitioners adopt both methodological naturalism and competitive skepticism as cultural norms. IMHO, nothing new has been said on the topic since then.

    My own conservationism is robust enough to accommodate ‘moderate’ deconstruction, thank you all very much 8^). Emotionally-grounded conservationists in the tradition of H.D. Thoreau, who acknowledge that their intellectual foundations aren’t necessarily verifiable intersubjectively, need no scientific justification in any case.

  49. Willard says:

    > He wrote an essay called It’s the Development, Stupid ! or How Can we Modernize Modernization?, where he buys into Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s post-environmentalism strawman,

    I don’t think BrunoL does buy economodernist hippie bashing:

    Such a view of environmentalism is of course very unfair to the great number of scientific and political groups who have struggled with such intelligence to bring ecological issues to the forefront of public consciousness. No militant, no scientist, no administrator that I know, will recognize oneself in the portrait the authors make of the “environmentalists.” And yet, N&S are right on one essential feature: no matter how important the work that has been done so far, ecological questions are still taken as peculiar to one specific domain of concerns, not as the core of politics. Never are these issues treated with the same sense of urgency and centrality, with the same passions, the same moral energy than the rest of public issues. At the very least, they don’t mobilize in the same ways the democratic ideals so essential to the pursuit of civilized life.

    http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/107-NORDHAUS&SHELLENBERGER.pdf

    Intriguingly, BrunoL attributes to N&S the very idea why Green parties have been created in the first place.

  50. Roger Jones says:

    Willard,
    my take on that is that he is trying to have a buck each way, and at that stage he was still playing. He might not have wholly bought into the argument presented by N&S, yet he saw merit in their trying to shake things up. Given the critiques he has made of modernism, why entertain their strawman argument at all? He rejects a lack of self awareness only to embrace misdirection?

    At least now he admits things are serious.

  51. Dikran Marsupial says:

    “If the silly bugger wasn’t trying so hard to show how clever he is and just tried to be clear, we’d all be better off.”

    Good advice for any academic! ;o)

  52. Eli Rabett says:

    Dikran, unfortunately try that and you can’t get published.

  53. Roger Jones says:

    Ironically, Eli, that was one of key points Latour made in his earlier studies.

  54. Steven Mosher says:

  55. Dikran Marsupial says:

    Eli, If that we’re true, I’d never have published anything! ;o)

  56. Mal Adapted says:

    Everything is a social construct!

    As Science is a collective enterprise in which peer consensus is integral to progress, that’s self-evidently true of scientific ‘facts’.

  57. Willard says:

    RogerJ,

    I agree with you that BrunoL “rejects a lack of self awareness only to embrace misdirection,” as he says so more or less explicitly in the following paragraph:

    Although many people have criticized N&S for castigating unfairly their fellow activists, this is beside the point, because their question is not to be fair to the hundreds of thousands who have already converted to a more ascetic view of history, but to address all the others, those for whom nonhumans are not part of politics at all. Very explicitly, N&S take up the question of ecology in the same way as some Democrats are trying to understand why Republicans keep winning the battle around values and religion, no matter how many well meaning souls claim they should not. Well, Republicans do, and that is the only real puzzle to be solved, and quickly. If values are at the front line, well, this is where the battle has to be fought. After all, Saint Paul too was unfair to his fellow Pharisees, and yet he decided that it was to the Gentiles that he had to convert. Such is the direction in which I want to push the argument of the authors a tad further and to see how we could overcome the limits of an era of limits: not for the Chosen, but for the Heathens—maybe even for the French!

    In his essay, he criticizes N&S in almost every turn. What he shares is the “hypermodernization” of the problem of Nature. More precisely, BrunoL wants N&S to think more clearly and become Latourians themselves!

    We must suppose that in the realm of political ontology, all that is fair.

  58. Roger Jones says:

    Willard,
    I was intrigued by that para. Still, he conflates ecological limits with the limits of purpose, and they are not the same thing. Humans may eventually be able to build self-sustaining habitats, which would surpass those limits, but not in time to prevent global ecological limits being exceeded catastrophically if pushed that far.
    As for values, in the English speaking world, neoconservatives and their fellow travellers have had the better power over narrative for some time. He asks the right question there but that has nothing to do with limits, or environmentalism. Is it because they have the power to control the narrative, or is it the strength of the narrative? Human psychology is not built for constant change, it’s constructed to map risk spatially, to seek security within physical and social safe spaces. Controlling the environment is part of that and grrrrowth, as you have put it, has become the agency with which that’s achieved.
    Values embedded within social technologies developed with a sense of self-awareness would not be hypermodernization, it would be something else, but may be too much to ask.

  59. izen says:

    @-Roger Jones
    “Is it because they have the power to control the narrative, or is it the strength of the narrative? Human psychology is not built for constant change, it’s constructed to map risk spatially, to seek security within physical and social safe spaces. ”

    The preponderance of autocratic theocracy in human history indicates that strict rule-based deontology is a successful social/ethical strategy.
    However depressing that may be for enlightened Consequentialists.

    Bruno L and the POMO crowd seem to dismiss science facts as social constructs on the basis that social constructs are a deontology, an arbitrary set of imposed biases. That may not be true of a consequence based evolution of social constructs shaped by empirical experience.
    We no longer accept slavery, not because of a rule change prompted by moral reason, but because it does more harm than good on any cumulative cost benefit analysis.

  60. Dikran Marsupial says:

    “We no longer accept slavery, not because of a rule change prompted by moral reason, but because it does more harm than good on any cumulative cost benefit analysis.‘“

    I hope I have misunderstood something here, but I would not want to live in a society that genuinely believed that.

  61. russellseitz says:

    I stand updated, having last talked to BrunoL a year ago, just before he went PoMo Emeritus at Sciences Po , and just after Sciences Po beat Harvard 4-1 at polo.

  62. izen says:

    @-Dikran Marsupial
    “I hope I have misunderstood something here, but I would not want to live in a society that genuinely believed that.”

    I may be getting mixed up with -1e pushing Utilitarianism on the other thread…
    (grin)

  63. Steven Mosher says:

    We definately win the narrative game. You guys suck at telling stories.

    You also suck at building things that last

    fricken eggheads, putting solar panels in the paths of todays hurricanes because of a warming threat in 2050….

  64. jacksmith4tx says:

    That is a powerful picture Steven. Well at least it will be repaired or dismantled in a year and we can’t say that about Fukushima ($Billions X decades) can we.

  65. izen says:

    @-Dikran Marsupial
    “I hope I have misunderstood something here, but I would not want to live in a society that genuinely believed that.”

    That does prompt the question;
    What set of beliefs about slavery would a society you wanted to live in, have?

  66. Dikran Marsupial says:

    The golden rule is generally a good starting point for civilised behaviour, most people would not want to work without remuneration (or freedom), even if it did maximise utility for society as a whole. Simple idea, sadly not always so straightforward to put into practice.

  67. Willard says:

    RogerJ,

    I think we can agree that Bruno’s reanalysis of N&S has little to do with anything tangible. He says nothing for or against nukes, GMOs, and urban planning, which are the main lines of the BTI’s playbook. And when it does it rings hollow. Take Bruno’s sideswipe against degrowth, or la décroissance, which has more traction in the francosphere. Portraying degrowth as ascetism caricatures the idea that sooner or later, we’ll need to measure progress by taking externalities into account. Only GRRRROWTH goes on indefinitely, as it only operates in the mythical realm. Nothing would prevent Bruno from considering that degrowth could very well be one valid way to go beyond modernity or post modernity and to reach for the impossible, as he cryptically suggests. But he’s caught in his prejudices.

    I predict that Bruno’s political ontology will suffer the same fate as Heidegger’s.

  68. Vinny Burgoo says:

    #geosocialrifts:

  69. Willard says:

    > Be carefull what you ask for, Willard!

    I do hope you do not want me to report when Pascal Engel crushed Sokal, Russell. I’d rather finish to tell about the exchange I had with Kevin Folta instead.

    You might still like:

  70. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    Only GRRRROWTH goes on indefinitely, as it only operates in the mythical realm.

    And audits, which likewise are not without political ontology and mythos.

  71. izen says:

    @-Dikran Marsupial
    “The golden rule is generally a good starting point for civilised behaviour”

    Agreed.
    But is that because it is revealed wisdom, an absolute moral rule, or because there is good experimental evidence it is a stable stratergy for large groups ?

    “Don’t do unto other as you would have them do unto you.
    Their tastes may differ.”
    G.B.S.

  72. russellseitz says:

    willard @nevaudit
    “Perhaps you failed because you wouldn’t grasp or accept that constructs can *refer* to reality, Bret. Learn the difference.”

    Willard is invited to teach us the meaning of the folllowing excerpt from Society and Space:

    GEONTOLOGIST Eliabeth Povinelli:
    … I coined the term “geontology” to indicate a disruption of a previous formation of power …

    Geontology asks, How do we understand the current formation of power when the figures that emerge from its mechanisms are something like the animist, desert, and the terrorist rather than the masturbating child, the hysterical woman, the perverse adult and the Malthusian couple?

    KY: If we consider the Anthropocene as a monstrous geography (a kind of suicidal exhausting of earth materials), what kind of political reconsideration of geographical obligations might make an otherwise that is not-Anthropocene? …

    EP: I reserve the idea of the monster for that which decisively disrupts the current organization of the actual—…

    Thus truth is not a proposition that has more or less referential coherence but an event that has more or less disruptive power…
    Foucault, Deleuze, Braidotti, and others have noted that these threshold events are experienced at the time as monstrosities, as incomprehensible, as mad. The more event-full and more true it is, the more monstrous the event appears.”

  73. Willard says:

    Try this, Russell. Report.

    One of the most important lessons of undergraduate studies is to see Freedom Fighters like Bret Weinstein getting knocked from their self-made retrofuturistic pedestals by researchers who spent enough time reading to humbly learn that criticizing for real is hard.

  74. russellseitz says:

    It may be take a while to finish reading M.Engel’s amusing polemic. Thanks for the link.

  75. izen says:

    @-russellseitz
    “Willard is invited to teach us the meaning of the folllowing excerpt from Society and Space:”

    Is it not rather old fashion to expect that “the meaning” can be derived from a text? Or that it can be taught.
    Shirley the central message of POMO is that teachable meaning is a social construct, the best that can be achieved is a deconstruction.

    At least, POMO writing such as the piece you quote seems to meet that criteria or being free of meaning, even after extensive deconstruction.

  76. Dikran Marsupial says:

    @izen I think experimental evidence would be difficult to get due to our inability to apply the golden rule in practice (or at least the results would be rather noisy). Slavery gives a good example though as arguably its abolition resulted in greater stability as it lessened the injustice of a large segment of society, and it is largely injustice/inequality that leads to instability (caveat, stats is my subject, not people ;o)

    I don’t think the golden rule is necessarily revealed wisdom or an absolute moral rule, it seems to me to be a corollary of assuming that none of us are special.

  77. izen says:

    @-Dikran Marsupial
    “I think experimental evidence would be difficult to get due to our inability to apply the golden rule in practice (or at least the results would be rather noisy).”

    Complex and noisy results ?
    Sounds like a job for statistical modelling !

    https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3196331/fudenberg_emergence.pdf

  78. Dikran Marsupial says:

    everything is a job for statistical modelling! ;o)

  79. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    …by researchers who spent enough time reading to humbly learn that criticizing for real is hard.

    More humility, please.
    Some researchers find that even reading has its critical limits.
    Hard-working neo-scholastics may yet occasionally defer to what we once so innocently referenced as ‘observations’.

  80. Here’s one for the Science & Technology Studies people to evaluate:

    Feng, Q. Y., & Dijkstra, H. A. (2018). What Have Complex Network Approaches Learned Us About El Niño?. In Advances in Nonlinear Geosciences (pp. 133-142). Springer

    I did a double-take on that title.

    Tsonis is quite the editor isn’t he?

    “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” – George W Bush

  81. russellseitz says:

    “At least, POMO writing such as the piece you quote seems to meet that criteria or being free of meaning, even after extensive deconstruction.”

    It does sound rather like Christopher Monckton being interviewed by James Delingpole.

  82. Willard says:

    It sure does, just like talk of meaninglessness sounds a lot like good ol’ positivism, which has French roots, fans of AlanS may not recall.

  83. Willard says:

    > Some researchers find that even reading has its critical limits.

    When reading’s at stake, reading’s more the lower bound than the maximal one:

    But I agree that one can save minutes of observations by spending countless hours in a library.

  84. Bob Loblaw says:

    “I don’t think the golden rule is necessarily revealed wisdom or an absolute moral rule…”

    It is basically an appeal to not be a hypocrite. If you want others to not treat you a particular way, then why would you treat them that way? Of course, there are always those that thing everyone else is nasty to them, so they may as well be nasty, too.

  85. izen says:

    @-Bob Loblaw
    “If you want others to not treat you a particular way, then why would you treat them that way?”

    Because doing so will result in a material gain, or increased reproductive success, or social status.
    Only if others will (or can) retaliate by treating you in the same manner or impose a penalty would it prevent extortion or exploitation from being a way to maximise individual gain.

    In a pack of saints, the cheat is King.

  86. Dikran Marsupial says:

    That is not a good reason for not doing it though. It is an example though of why I don’t think you can capture ethics adequately in purely economic terms. In this case it is violating the ethical assumption that none of us are special.

  87. Bob Loblaw says:

    “Because doing so will result in a material gain, or increased reproductive success, or social status.”

    Well, yes, but also results in being a hypocrite. As I said, it’s an appeal to not be a hypocrite – but the world is full of hypocrites, for the reasons you specify. There are lots of people that don’t mind being hypocrites. (They often don’t like having it pointed out, though. And to complete the cycle, they often point it out in others, but detest having it pointed out in themselves. It’s a self-sealing psychological trait.)

  88. mt says:

    The fact that there is something worthy of study, and that there are people who study it, is not sufficient to conclude that those studies that exist are worth paying attention to.

    This applies to much sociology of science (and much economics as well).

    Latour is eager to forgive himself for his role in our contemporary morass of confusion. I don’t think we should let him off so lightly. It might be otherwise if he would elucidate a cogent exposition of his error. Shrugging it off and moving on isn’t sufficient.

  89. MT,

    Latour is eager to forgive himself for his role in our contemporary morass of confusion. I don’t think we should let him off so lightly. It might be otherwise if he would elucidate a cogent exposition of his error. Shrugging it off and moving on isn’t sufficient.

    I tend to agree, but I’m not sure what this means other than it being extremely unlikely that I would ever take what he says all that seriously.

  90. Willard says:

    > I don’t think we should let him off so lightly.

    Then you’ll have to pay attention to BrunoL’s studies, whether you find them worth paying attention to or not.

  91. mt says:

    W, did Latour ever come to a position on scientific epistemics that was other than pompous handwaving? If so, could you summarize?

    Because the purpose of science is primarily epistemic, not social (or ethical for that matter). Those aspects exist, but only because the endeavor is carried out by humans, not because they are the core nature of the endeavor.

    As far as I know, the “social critique of science” boils down to trivializing the epistemic value of science to the point of derision, and wrapping it up in pretentious opacity. I don’t see why I need to pay further attention to Latour unless he genuinely revisits this attitude rather than furrowing his brow perplexedly as to why it is being so eagerly taken up by his political enemies, as I predicted.

  92. Willard says:

    > did Latour ever come to a position on scientific epistemics that was other than pompous handwaving? If so, could you summarize?

    Why would I do that, MT – so that you can continue hot taking on stuff you know little about?

    Scratch your own damn itch.

  93. Eli Rabett says:

    Who, Eli asks, appointed Willard source of all knowledge, sharer of none?

  94. Willard says:

    Back in my days, lots of kids were playing on Kant’s yard, dear Eli. They were all mocking how Immanuel was a real pissant. Then Kant scholars showed up. All the cool kids ran away.

    Criticizing takes dedication.

    I don’t have the inclination to defend BrunoL, nor do I have the resources to pay due diligence to his work. I dislike his style, but for all I know there might be good stuff there. It certainly looks more serious than what I know of (say) SteveF.

    There’s no need to have a hot take on everything, you know.

  95. mt says:

    My position is, if you don’t actually convince me that there’s something Latour said recently that constitutes a significant reversal of his nonsense of the past, I have better places to put my attention. I’m doomed to remain ignorant, I guess.

    Roger Pielke Sr. thinks I am obligated to pay attention to what he says, too. There are reasons I don’t bother.

    Nonsense is not in short supply in this world. It’s the sense we need to attend to.

  96. Willard says:

    > There are reasons I don’t bother.

    I don’t think you dismiss Senior and BrunoL for the same kind of reasons, MT. You spent more time pondering on the former’s stuff than the latter’s stuff. You had personal exchanges with him, exchanges that tell you enough about what to expect from the researcher. OTOH, I believe you dismiss the latter by implication and by the usual prejudices against POMO.

    If that’s correct, then you’re in no position to say that BrunoL’s work is nonsense. At best you could argue that there’s very little in investing any effort to make sense out of trifles.

  97. mt says:

    I think it’s far worse than trifles, and I invested plenty of effort into it in the 90s.

    There is much wrong with science as practiced and it could do with a sound critique, but only from a point of view that accepts that it’s a good deal more than a constellation of social relationships.

    Has Latour come around to understand this? If so, I’d like to know. If not, I’ve had quite enough of that stuff.

  98. Willard says:

    > Has Latour come around to understand this? If so, I’d like to know.

    Easy peasy:

    The word ‘social’ no matter how vague —and Ian Hacking, to whom I will turn later, has nicely ranked the many variants of constructivism— does not designate a ‘kind of stuff’ by comparison with other types of materials, but the process through which any thing, including matters of fact, has been built. Houses do not fall in place like pies from the sky, and facts no more than babies are brought by storks. The Three Little Pigs built houses of differing resistance, but they were all house-builders and, besides, they worked together or in competition with one another : it is this common and collective process to which ‘social construction’ refers, not to the various materials from which things are made. Why call this process ‘social’ ? Simply because it is collective, requiring the complex collaboration of many trades and skills. As soon as the word ‘construction’ succeeds in gaining some of the metaphoric weight of building, builders, workers, architects, masons, cranes and concrete poured into forms held by scaffolds, it will be clear that it is not the solidity of the resulting construct that’s in question, but rather the many heterogeneous ingredients, the long process, the many trades, the subtle coordination necessary to achieve such a result. The result itself is as solid as it gets.

    http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/87-CONSTRUCTIVISM-GB.pdf

    Emphases added for the win.

    There’s a more direct testimony later on:

    [H]ow on earth could one invoke the more solid stuff of social relations to account for the solidity of the harder facts of nature? Are the facts discovered by sociologists and economists so much stronger than the ones constructed by chemists, physicists and geologists? How unlikely.

    Then BrunoL tells how he got caught between critical sociologists and naive realists. In other words, studying science as being done by humans need not imply that scientific products don’t refer to a world out there.

    I hope this helps dispel a myth about social construction. None of what I’m saying should be taken as an invitation to study BrunoL. If you want to ridicule his more “ethographic” work in the most serious manner, you could try something like that:

    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/016224399001500407

    “Nonsense!” might very well be the cheapest and weakest ClimateBall move.

  99. I mostly agree with MT when he says

    Nonsense is not in short supply in this world. It’s the sense we need to attend to.

    There’s lots of information out there, and far too little time. I certainly don’t have much interest in committing time to something that I’ve already seen and regarded as mostly nonsensical (okay, to be clear what I mean is committing time because I think I might learn something from it, rather than because I think it is nonsense worth rebutting).

  100. Eli Rabett says:

    ATTP touches on an important point. Engaging with BrunoL differs perhaps only in a small degree with engaging with WillardT. If the answer is one learns little then the only reason is the sport. As to WillardW, YMMV.

  101. mt says:

    Let the man, in his delighted-with-his-own-wit sort of way, speak for himself.

    “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?”

    – Bruno Latour (http://www.rhizomia.net/2010/05/latour-on-climate-sceptics-revising-his.html)
    ===

    Good points, if not particularly original ones. And excellent questions at the end there, Bruno. We await sensible answers.

    To “was I foolishly mistaken” I’d say, well, you made matters quite a bit worse, yeah.

  102. Willard says:

    > you made matters quite a bit worse

    I really doubt that, MT. First, Freedom Fighters don’t need science studies – they have conspiracies. Second, it’d be like saying that your argument for more scientific education promotes education camps.

    Oh. Wait.

  103. Willard says:

    Also, anyone who’d deny the power of social networks has some splaining to do:

    View story at Medium.com

  104. Willard says:

    More on scientific networking, courtesy of Eli, circa 2006:

    Uncle Eli has always admired astronomy, botany, and zoology as sciences with important amateur participation. By nurturing the large community of those interested in the science these fields have built important support groups, and amateurs have made important contributions. Many amateurs become obsessed with relatively narrow and previously trodden areas. Within those areas their knowledge often exceeds that of professionals. To Eli the most important thing is that people get to experience the joy of science. The smartest thing NASA ever did was reserve time on the Hubble for amateurs and some good science has resulted.

    What amateurs lack as a group is perspective, an understanding of how everything fits together and a sense of proportion. Graduate training is designed to pass lore from advisors to students. You learn much about things that didn’t work and therefore were never published [hey Prof. I have a great idea!…Well actually son, we did that back in 06 and wasted two years on it], whose papers to trust, and which to be suspicious of [Hey Prof. here’s a great new paper!… Son, don’t trust that clown.] In short the kind of local knowledge that allows one to cut through the published literature thicket.

    But this lack makes amateurs prone to get caught in the traps that entangled the professionals’ grandfathers, and it can be difficult to disabuse them of their discoveries. Especially problematical are those who want science to validate preconceived political notions, and those willing to believe they are Einstein and the professionals are fools. Put these two types together and you get a witches brew of ignorance and attitude.

    http://rabett.blogspot.com/2006/10/amateur-night.html

    Social constructionnists could not have said it better.

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