PARIS—French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, 70, has long been a thorn in the side of science. But in the age of “alternative facts,” he’s coming to its defense.
Latour, who retired last month from his official duties at Sciences Po, a university for the social sciences here, shot to fame with the 1979 book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, written with U.K. sociologist Steve Woolgar. To research it, Latour spent 2 years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, acting as an anthropologist observing scientists at work. In 1987, Latour elaborated on his thinking in the textbook Science in Action.
Central to Latour’s work is the notion that facts are constructed by communities of scientists, and that there is no distinction between the social and technical elements of science. Latour received praise for his approach and insights, but his relativist and “social-constructivist” views triggered a backlash as well. In their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt accused Latour and other sociologists of discrediting their profession and jeopardizing trust in science.
The heated debate that followed, known as the “science wars,” lasted for many years. In later writings, Latour acknowledged that the criticism of science had created a basis for antiscientific thinking and had paved the way in particular for the denial of climate change, now his main topic. Today, he hopes to help rebuild confidence in science.
ScienceInsider spoke with Latour in his apartment here in the French capital. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How do you look back at the “science wars”?
A: Nothing that happened during the ’90s deserves the name “war.” 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. 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.
We’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.
There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.
Q: How did you get involved in this second science war?
A: It happened in 2009 at a cocktail party. A famous climate scientist came up to me and said: “Can you help us? We are being attacked unfairly.” Claude Allègre, a French scientist and former minister of education, was running a very efficient ideological campaign against climate science.
It symbolized a turnaround. People who had never really understood what we as science studies scholars were doing suddenly realized they needed us. They were not equipped, intellectually, politically, and philosophically, to resist the attack of colleagues accusing them of being nothing more than a lobby.
Q: How do you explain the rise of antiscientific thinking and “alternative facts”?
A: To have common facts, you need a common reality. This needs to be instituted in church, classes, decent journalism, peer review. … It is not about posttruth, it is about the fact that large groups of people are living in a different world with different realities, where the climate is not changing.
The second science war has at least freed us of the idea that science and technology can be separated from policy. I have always argued that they can't be. Science has never been immune to political bias. On issues with huge policy implications, you cannot produce unbiased data. That does not mean you cannot produce good science, but scientists should explicitly state their interests, their values, and what sort of proof will make them change their mind.
Q: How should scientists wage this new war?
A: 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.
The Australian public ethics professor Clive Hamilton has proposed another line of defense named “strategic essentialism”—stating that the science is indisputable for strategic reasons. This sounds reasonable, but in the long run we need a more realistic image of scientific knowledge. Also, given the state of the dispute and the current lack of confidence, we can’t just go back and state that climate change is “just a fact.”
Q: Isn’t it?
A: No, science is more complex and messy than to understand how the climate works. It is an illusion of certainty to state that we fully understand it, a remnant of the ideal of science.
Q: But climate change doubters use the uncertainty strategically, too.
A: That is true. But the uncertainty is no legitimate reason to block or postpone policy. And certainly, it is no reason to defund the research. That is the real crime: defunding research which might produce unwelcome results. By the way, calling it “skepticism” is an abuse of the term.
Q: What are your postretirement plans?
A: I have fewer things to take care of, but I will continue my work. 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.