Susan highlighted a New York Times article about Bruno Latour, that I had actually seen and had been considering writing about. I have written about Bruno Latour before and I’m still not sure what to make of this article. One issue is that it seems somewhat revisionist; highlighting how he’s been misunderstood. If part of someone’s research is to understand the link between science and society, then you might hope that that they’d have some understanding of how what they said would be received.
I thought I would highlight a couple of things that caught my eye. The article says
Latour believes that if scientists were transparent about how science really functions — as a process in which people, politics, institutions, peer review and so forth all play their parts — they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims.
I do think that this is an aspect of the scientific process that we don’t highlight enough. I think it would be good if we were clearer about the actual messy business of doing science. I don’t, however, really think that this would put us in a stronger position when it came to convincing people, especially those who are pre-disposed to reject some scientific information. I also think it’s important to distinguish between the details of the scientific process, which involves people and is infuenced by various societal factors, and the ability of this process to uncover information about whatever is being studied.
What might help is if there were people who studied the link between science and society, they could be the ones making the broader public more aware of how science really functions, while also being clear that this does not mean that the scientific “truths” that emerge are somehow strongly influenced by the various societal factor that influence the underlying process. Maybe we could call these people Science and Technology Studies researchers?
The article then goes on to say
Climatologists, he says, must recognize that, as nature’s designated representatives, they have always been political actors, and that they are now combatants in a war whose outcome will have planetary ramifications.
I think this is mostly wrong, but he’s not alone in making this kind of suggestion. There seem to be quite a lot of people who recognise the seriousness of this issue, but still seem to think that the responsibility for communicating this lies with climate scientists. I think climate scientists do have a responsibility to communicate their research, but I don’t think they’re really “nature’s designated representatives” and that they have some obligation to fight this “war” (ironically, I had thought that there was a tendency amongst science and society researchers to criticise war metaphors). Rather than passing the buck back to climate scientists, why don’t those who recognise the importance of this, get out and communicate it themselves (to be fair, Latour does seem to be doing some of this)?
I would be interested to know what others think of the article. There were parts that were interesting and some good points were made. I have written quite a lot about Science and Technology Studies (STS) and have quite often been less than impressed, so this may somewhat colour my interpretation of the article. A great deal of what I’ve seen from STS has appeared rather confused. Of course, this could simply be the messy business of doing research and maybe there are amazing insights emerging from this that I’m somehow missing. If so, I’d be keen to have them pointed out. However, I’d also be keen to understand how a discpline that itself is engaged in the messy business of doing research, thinks it can somehow also comment on the messy business of doing research. It feels as though there must be a point at which it becomes essentially impossible to objectively comment on a process in which you’re also involved, but maybe someone can convince me that this isn’t the case.