The Cult of Science: There is less difference between science and religion than atheists like to think
Eloquent, amusing and fabulously well-informed, Bruno Latour is one of the superstars of French intellectual life. He was trained as a philosopher, but in the early 1970s he moved into social anthropology, doing fieldwork on tribal myths and rituals in Ivory Coast, West Africa. Then he decided to turn his ethnographic gaze on modern western societies, and spent the best part of two years observing the myths and rituals of a tribe of neuro-endocrinologists at the Salk Institute in California. The conclusion of his inquiry - published in 1979 as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar - was that there are large discrepancies between official images of science and the realities of life in a community of professional researchers. Scientists are not guileless observers, patiently recording the facts that nature places before them, but crafty cultural operators, manipulating vast technical resources to precipitate artificial new phenomena, and then networking like mad, through the production, distribution and exchange of masses of words, diagrams and statistics. They negotiate, in short, not with the objective world but with each other.
Laboratory Life was exceedingly controversial. The idea that scientific facts are socially constructed was a red rag to the self-appointed guardians of enlightenment, who took it on themselves to explain that questions like whether it’s raining or whether there’s a dog in the basket are settled by simple observation rather than discursive bargaining. But such attacks fell well short of their target. Scientific objects like genomes, bosons and neurones are rather more elusive, epistemologically speaking, than dogs and rain, and if they could be discovered by simple observation, then scientists and big laboratories would never have been invented.
On top of that, the norms of science, like those of morality or politics, are ideals rather than realities, and pointing out that we do not always live up to them is not the same as telling us to stop trying. In some respects, however, the critics may have had a point, and some of us have always suspected that Latour was a bit too quick to generalise from the particular scientific communities he happens to have studied, and apt to forget about the kinds of scientists - Faraday, Mendel and Darwin, for example, or Frege, Saussure and Turing - who work largely on their own. Also, he sometimes seemed to be having it both ways: winning bankable notoriety by denouncing scientists as hypocrites who like to market their social constructions as absolute truths; but transforming himself, when challenged, into an unassuming inquirer, doing his humble best to apply the scientific method to science itself.
Orthodox philosophers of science may have been alienated beyond recall, but Latour managed to retain the goodwill of many practising scientists, who were happy to have him working amongst them, noticing patterns of behaviour of which they were unconscious, and providing them with new ways of reflecting on their daily routines. But if Latour had no interest in debunking science or scientists, he was nothing if not critical when it came to the scientific self-image. In an ambitious exercise in “symmetrical anthropology”, published in 1991 as We Have Never Been Modern, he laid into the whole idea of a division between enlightened scientific modernity and benighted pre-modern primitivism. Our sense of ourselves as educated, rational and thoroughly up-to-date rests, he argued, on an array of distinctions - between objectivity and subjectivity, nature and society, reason and emotion, and knowledge and opinion - that everyone knows to be full of holes.