The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Laboratory of Dr Latour, and Other Stories

The Social Sessions 01: The Laboratory of Doctor Latour, and Other Stories

Date: Wednesday 14 Oct 2009 17:30 - 19:30

Guests: Andrew J. Wilson (Writers' Bloc), Professor Steve Yearley (ESRC Genomics Forum), Dr Emma Frow (ESRC Genomics Forum), Dr Chris French (Lecturer in Microbial Biotechnology, University of Edinburgh)

Host: Ken Macleod, Writer in Residence, Genomics Forum

Organised by: Genomics Forum in partnership with Writers' Bloc and Transreal Fiction

Venue: Boardroom, ESRC Genomics Forum, 3rd Floor, St John's Land, Holyrood Road, University of Edinburgh

The Event: Drinks from 5.30pm in the ESRC Genomics Forum will be followed by a discussion, led by host Ken MacLeod and his guests, exploring how science fiction has portrayed scientific work.

The reckless 'mad scientist' like Frankenstein or Dr Moreau seldom appears in modern science fiction - some of whose writers are scientists themselves.
But do any of these fictional portrayals match what social scientists have found when observing scientists in their natural habitat? And how do scientists feel about sociologists watching them, and about SF writers imagining them?

The Social Sessions are a carnival of discussions about science and literature taking place October 2009 - January 2010.

This event is FREE, but due to venue capacity please RSVP to reserve a place. Email: Tel: 0131 651 4747

Further details here.

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I remember when that Social Constructivism stuff started becoming popular. I was horrified. Ditto when I read Kuhn's famous book in 71. Not one argument for his famous denial of truth and progress. Really, not one. Yet many accept his ideas and maybe even read him. Why? I cannot explain it. Kuhn's Structire of Scientific Revolution is my #1 choice for burning (as someone said of Sheldrake). His influence was and remains a cultural disaster. One example: I knew a married couple in Amsterdam who were historians of science. The husband wrote one of the 2 basic papers on Martin Ohm (of the law). I had dinner at their place one night around 77. Both told me that astrology was just as truthful as any physical idea. I could not believe my ears. When I asked them how they knew this, they simply referred to Kuhn.
Now Latour et al have gone further. At least that's what people tell me. Science is said to be nothing but a construction based on some socially accepted conventions. Truth? Progress? Forget it. I don't have time for such drivel.

That event sounds great! What a pitty that Edinburgh is not really next door. Any hope for a livestream or something the like?

George, if you click on the 'Latour' link you'll find the Wikipedia article on him, which has some amazing quotes. But I don't know how representative or fair they are - I haven't read the context. His 'Laboratory Life' didn't go nearly so far.

Till - thanks! Maybe not a livestream, but I'll see if we can get it recorded for the forum's BlipTV channel.

Good morning Ken--I don't know how representative Latour is either. But I do know that he reinforced a trend that I have very good reasons to dislike. E.G. some time after Lab Life, a physicist wrote the book Constructing Quarks, which "argues" that much or all of particle physics is nothing but a social construction, and that there is no notion of truth involved. That's retrogressive and bonkers to me! I've seen the same thing argued about maths. There the idea is a tiny bit plausible, but few believe it in any strong version. Indeed, right now some philosophers are writing about the question, Where Do Numbers Come From? There are mathematical constructivists, but they don't claim that 1,2,3,... are social constructs. Usually, they accept them or sets as given and build up the rest of math from that basis.
Today the notion of truth is under discussion in philosophy, as is the concept of realism. I know friendly philosophers who believe in neither, but I doubt that they would subscribe to outright social constructivism. Well, perhaps one would...

P.S. If maths are social constructions, why do they work so well for engineers? Nobody knows. The physicist E. Wigner wrote a famous article about how implausable it is that an abstract field like math can be successfully applied in the concrete world. I must say that nobody has satisfactorily solved Wigner's puzzle, but failure (up to now) does not imply that some strong form of social constructivism is correct.

I just checked the Wiki on Latour. The article enforces the idea (without saying so at first) that the social constructivism of Laboratory Life is pure sociology that need not go into philosophical questions of truth and progress (and others). Perhaps the book is moderate in this sense (as Kuhn's Structure... is not). But then the article discusses some quite amazing notions of Latour about the death of Pharaoh Ramses II due to Tuberculosis. The Wiki claims that Latour thinks that this could not be true, since the cause of TB was discovered by Koch in the 19th century. Latour is quoted as saying, "...Before Koch, the bacillus has [sic] no real existence." I had better stop now, before I get a non-existent stroke, given that we don't really know their causes.

I'm a historian, so I only ever approach theorists on a smash and grab basis - lifting the bits that fit, and not giving two hoots about the rest. In that context, I've found Latour's work on the concept of a 'centre of calculation' really useful in my work on the history of the control room, both as an idea and as an actually existing set of things that people made and did.

(Insert obligatory disclaimer about how I am not a fan of the strong programme of sociology of science here. Anyone wanting evidence for this, I refer to my laudatory review of the _Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense_ for the _Morning Star_)

Chris Williams

Good stuff in parenthesis Mr Williams. I know a policymaker in a land I'm not going to name who uses the Strong Program to help guide the ideas of his bosses. He has a doctorate in philosophy, wound up in that other country, and was offered a cushy job on a "research council" that helps out with all sorts of "rationalisations of scarce resources." When I hear that and similar phrases I ask a simple question: Why rationalise? I continue on from there with further questions that I've thought up. The answers usually have cut-off points at the insurers and/or people who want to lower all taxes.

Latour has a strong sense of irony and mischief, which tends to be a dangerous thing when dealing with literal minded American scientists (*). I'm less familiar with his science work (though I remember being impressed by Laboratory life, which struck me as serious and rigorous), but his work on technology is very good indeed I think. I say this as a fairly pragmatic computer scientist with a subscription to New Scientist. I also suspect that if most practising scientists read Laboratory life (and could get through the alien jargon), they'd probably agree with a lot of it.

George: Kuhn, huh? While one could argue with the details, the rough frame of his thesis seems reasonable and supported by the data. And it was a huge improvement on the naive positivism, or whig theories of scientific progress that preceded it. So what if stupid people misunderstood it. Stupid people misunderstand Einstein.
If you're going to argue that science is not a social construct, perhaps you can explain where its practices, assumptions and frameworks came from. God? Something innate in the universe. I think that science is one of the human race's crowning glories, but its as much a social construct as government, law, moral frameworks, literature.

In practice science is a messy and subjective process, which relies upon judgement calls, experience, intuition. It relies upon flawed human beings, with all the usual human flaws such as jealousy, ambition, etc. Mistakes are made, one generations theories and sometimes discoveries are later disproved and abandoned, dead ends are frequent. The "miracle" is that out of this messy (but very human) process, scientific progress occurs.

"If maths are social constructions, why do they work so well for engineers?"

I'm not sure that's really the paradox that you think it is. Rulers work well for engineers also, but they're definitely human constructions. They're useful because they give us a grip and handle on reality. Presumably that subset of maths used by engineers does the same.

(*) I rather suspect that Richard Feyman would have got the joke.

George, the bacillus quote is taken out of context. You might not agree with it in context, but he's arguing something different from how it appears in that article. Its not an argument that's easy to gloss, but essentially he's making an argument about the gap between the mental models (influenced by culture) that we use to get a grip on the invisible world and the underlying reality that we can never access directly. Being Latour he's making it in as provocative and mischievous way as he can, mind.

Funny thing: I remember what George so rightly bemoans being more the province of Feyerabend's Against Method than Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (see, eg. Kuhn's remark on scientific progress via the Wiki here linked); but then, it's been a long, long time since I read either. More interesting from my point of view: the sort of stuff which so enrages George is precisely the basis upon which I asserted last month that "philosophical materialism [is] on life support". ;)

Hi Cian--In your first contributon you admit that "scientific progress occurs," so whether I agree with what you say in some places depends on what you mean by that. For Kuhn denies that it occurs, in the sense that progress consists in getting "closer and closer" to some one real structure by means of theory-succession. His only reasoning in the first book is to list some examples. They don't convince me. Moreover, as a philosopher I'd like (1) some clarification of terms, followed by (2) some reasoning using those clarified terms. I find neither in Structure. That's why I don't like the book. The examples are interesting, but Emile Meyerson used them and others to powerfully support realism in Identity and Reality, which inspired Kuhn (see his introduction). I believe that Meyerson failed for the same reason: examples alone don't satisfy any person with an interest in philosophical argumentation (me). To downgrade argument in favor of examples is a cultural and political danger.
Well, I'm relieved to hear that the quote is out of context! But that raises another problem. Should public intellectuals be so "mischievous" in contexts that are so susceptable to misunderstanding? i answer with a strong NO. For they are opinion formers. Latour on your reading (probably correct) knowingly engages in misleading the public! I despise that. It's one reason why I cannot easily read postmodern thinkers: they are often considered as being playful and "ironic," (whatever that means). friends of mine engage them in equally abstract and ironic (ok) debates, and write books about them. This not only lowers the standards of debate, it (1) encourages people to think this way, which leads (2) to a relative disregard of the scientific and social problems of the real world. Having that typically American end-goal of "fun" then takes precedence in their minds. I have seen this happen and am appalled. I hear that such modes of thought are on the wane; I certainly hope so.
Hi JMc---If I remember correctly I argued against diamat. I am a materialist, just not a dialectical one. I try to be as intellectually honest as possible. So I admit straight out that I am puzzled as to what sort of materialism I ought to subscribe to. Nothing in the world's philosophy satisfies me fully. Of the great philosophers Spinoza comes the closest, among my contemporaries Wilfrid Sellars inspires me, although my colleagues and I find more and more weak points and loose ends in his thought. Among near-contemporaries C.S. Peirce stands out. He was a theistic naturalist, no materialist. I unsuccessfully try to forgive him for the God-crap in some of his thought.

In a pragmatic sense, of course scientific progress occurs. Our science results in better technologies and seems to have increasing predictive power. As to whether we are approaching the true theory of everything…I am agnostic and indifferent. I don't think its a productive, useful, or answerable question. Like Latour, I think its a question best bracketed if one wants to understand science. There's a certain amount of mysticism in positivism I think.

Latour is not a public intellectual, unless there's some aspect of his career I'm unaware of, and the book that quote was taken from (indirectly - the reference is actually to a book attacking Latour. Wikipedia, eh) was most categorically not aimed at a non-academic audience. He's writing for his peers.

Latour on your reading (probably correct) knowingly engages in misleading the public!

Err, no. I really don't see how you could have read that into what I wrote. There's nothing misleading about it in context. The fact that out of context it is misleading is hardly the fault of Latour.

"It's one reason why I cannot easily read postmodern thinkers

Latour is not a postmodernist. And while some of his work might be playful and ironic, given the painstaking and detailed ethnographic work that supports his arguments (something incidentally that does not support the arguments of his more splenetic critics, who seem to believe that data collection is somehow unnecessary), it seems unlikely that "fun" is first and foremost in his mind.

I don't think it really helps your case that you haven't read Bruno Latour, know very little about him, but still feel its okay to attack the man for imagined crimes.

Cian, Please. Now you're talking about me out of context. Latour is a public intellectual whether he wants to be or not. For I know enough people who were influenced by him, and I know a critic of postmodernism who is having lots of "fun", while criticizing him and getting nowhere except the ongoing stuffing of his bank account. But I'll admit that the critic's also after real postmodernists as well. It all gets mixed up in his head. And you do say that Latour is being "mischevous," in which case he is knowingly misleading the public. That's what I meant. And I still despise it: it's irresponsable, especially given today's breed of academic administrators and financial supporters.
The kind of approach-to-the-truth notion is most definitely not positivism. That movement was well-dead by 1975. I was once a member, but never a committed one since I had strong realist tendencies (see next). The movement I'm referring to is called "scientific realism," and there are several varieties. But I would never say that any of them has a grasp of the one true method. For philosophy has a pretty awful historical track record, and I won't bet on any one theory of science and/or reality.
You are fully right to jump on me for leaping from Latour to the postmodernists. I certainly meant that it's the latter (and some of their critics) who are having "fun", not Latour. But being mischevous in this context is bad. I am sure that university administrators love postmodern and mischevous stuff, since they can use it to justify budget cuts and abolition of whole departments, with the sacking of their staffs. I don't like that one bit. Hence I'd say that Latour should be perfectly serious. And my saying that has nothing to do with his being a postmodernist (or not).
Finally, here's an example. Sometime in the late 70s a German philosopher wrote a book that purports to show how and when a research programme in physical or mathematical science should be "finalised." That scared me, for even then budget cuts in the sciences and humanities were uppermost in my mind: I was almost a victim of one several years later, but I had seen the handwriting on the wall.

a public intellectual is usually taken to mean an intellectual who communicates through the mass media (either through debates, or books intended for mass communication). Given that Latour does neither of these things…

Also, you seem to be blaming him for crimes of precognition here. When Latour wrote that book he had no way of knowing how widely it would be read, or how influential it would be, in academia (though hardly outside it). However you seem to be arguing that because it was eventually widely read, he should have been careful about what he wrote. Do you think that all academics when writing books should be careful of what they write in case it will be subsequently misunderstood by the stupid, the crazy, or the servile bureaucrat? Or only the one's whose books are successful?

"And you do say that Latour is being "mischevous," in which case he is knowingly misleading the public."
1) For the second time, he is not communicating with the public, but with a specialised audience.
2) There is nothing deceptive about his mischief. If you had actually read the book you might realise this. Deception and mischief are not synonymous. The UK government were not being mischievous when they attempted to mislead the UK public. My brother in law is not being deceptive when he winds me up about some aspect of British life. Hell, Jonathan Swift was mischievous. Marx definitely had his moments. For somebody who professes to be worried about misuse of language, you're not doing such a good job yourself.

"And I still despise it: it's irresponsable, especially given today's breed of academic administrators and financial supporters."

And if you can point to how Latour has directly had an influence on this (some examples of his writings, or activities), then please do so. Otherwise please drop the subject. Indirect doesn't count. Both Marx and the Beatles were indirectly "responsible" for atrocities - do we blame them for the interpretations of stupid, or crazy, people? Your friend the administrator would be a hack regardless of who he read - the STS stuff is just a way of justifying it in cod-academician language. In another life he'd have done so using Confucius, or Marx, Aquinas, or Aristotle, or god knows who.

BTW, ultimately your argument here seems to be boil down to the idea that certain topics, or areas of argument, should be off topic (c.f. late 70s German philosopher). You might want to be a bit more explicit about this if you really mean this, and if you don't, you might want to reconsider some of your arguments.

Hi Cian--Please, you are right about some things, e.g., Latour not being able to exert an influence via time travel. Yes, of course. About my administrator friend, he told me that he was influenced by the Strong Theory--he used the phrase. I know that I would not wish to serve under an institution such as one of those he has an influence on (there are several). And yes, you are right to say that a hack of an administrator would use any book he thought could to phonily justify their practices. OK, no problem. Still, intellectuals should think of such potential misuses of their mischevous texts. I was in academics from 68 through 07, and I saw things unfold that revolted me. I told colleagues many times that I hoped administrators would not notice such-and-such book. I don't know if any saw such things or not. I'm a retired philosopher and I do know that the field is faultering, in part thanks to the ideas of Rorty, not Kuhn. All I know about Latour's case is what my friend did with his books. I think it's reprehensable. Another philosopher I knew, Carl Hempel, broke with Rorty thanks to his reading of Rorty's first (misleading) book.
Finally, you may have gotten me wrong about the "finalisation" notion and book. It's not I who thought about closing off research. The book's author claimed that his ideas inform you of when a scientific research programme is no longer worth pursuing and should be considered as "finalised."
Again "finally," I was wrong to call Latour a public intellectual, for the reason you give. I should not have used the phrase. It's what he wrote, not his public or other role, that gets me mad. People I know have downplayed science for decades because of such assertions. One speaks of "mere science." Another cannot act in his own behafl right now, for similar reasons. Certain texts--Heidegger and Kuhn in the 2 latter people's case--have closed their minds to riches and in one case very immediately useful ones.

but you haven't read Latour, so you don't know what he wrote. Your inferences, in so far as I can infer them myself from what you're writing, are wrong. Those are not Latour's arguments. Engaging and disagreeing with Latour is fine; what bothers me is that the majority of those who attack him clearly haven't read him (stand up Dr Alan Sokal), or deliberately distort his writings. Which I think is both contemptible, and also (rather ironically) anti-enlightenment in its approach.

Your attack on Heidegger strikes me as hysterical, incidentally. I can think of various reasons to attack Heidegger's philosophy (romanticism being the strongest), but yours is not one of them.

Cian, I think your tone is straying outside the bounds of civility I like to see on this site. 'Hysterical' is well out of order, for a start. George has been trying to cool it in his last post and I urge you to do the same.

I don't know much about Latour but going by his website he definitely is a public intellectual, even by your (overly-narrow, IMHO) definition.

Yes you're right. What i probably meant was eccentric, but that's pushing it.

Overly-narrow? I'm not sure what other definition you could have. If public intellectual simply means a successful academic, then that would result in public intellectuals who are completely unknown by the general public.

But yes, I suppose latterly Latour writes a couple of articles a year for Le Monde. However when he wrote Pasteurisation he was not by any possible definition a public intellectual, so I would still argue that George's complaint was misplaced. And even if he had been, would one really argue that everything a public intellectual wrote was intended for general consumption. Would one argue that Galbraith's journal papers were intended for the same audience as his popular economics books?

Well, OK. But my point did not concern definitions. It concerned intellectuals' thinking about the possible consequences of their assertions, no matter where they are published or stated. Surely the effect will differ throughout a society, but one cannot assume that one's reading public will always and across the board have the logical and conceptual acuity to distinguish mischevous from seriously-meant writings, or sentences in writings.
I do not know what Latour's intent was when he made that mischevous remark. I don't know how logically acute he is. So I do not know if he thought of it as being mischevous. I do know (1) that my friend was (perhaps still is) involved in allocating funds for all scientific research carried out in an entire country. I also know (2) that the Strong Program influenced him somehow. I don't know the exact connection between (1) and (2). That's as precise as I can make it now. Briefly, I don't know if or how the Program influenced his actual funding decisions. Finally and logically separately, I know that such decisions by some people have had effects that I do not approve of, e.g., cutting out all programmes in pure maths at a university I'm familiar with. One can disagree with my preferences.

As I understand it, the Strong Programme is an attempt to explain the acceptance of scientific results or theories entirely in terms of the social processes by which they come to be accepted (i.e. independently of whether we think the are true or not). It says nothing about the real world not existing or being a social construct, etc.

When I think about it, this does seem a legitimate approach. Accepting that the evidence has become overwhelming is still a social process, an activity of people, which can be investigated in its own right. But I may have misunderstood.

Yes, those are social processes. But I wonder what motivations scientists--especially theoreticians--could have if they did not believe that they were trying to do a better job at describing reality than their predecessors or competitors? Some scientists and all positivists have denied that better description is where science is at, but very few scientists or philosophers accept this denial now. The strange things that have been discovered, non-locality, genes, for example, have convinced many that something deep is going on in nature and that science is our best means of discovering it.
now, while you are right to say that social science can and ought to study processes like acceptance, I'd distinguish between those processes and what they aim to accomplish. And I hold that the accomplishments (if and when they come) are better and better (though always fallible) descriptions of the deep structure of nature. This statement is a generic characterisation of Scientific Realism. It used to be called physicalism (and often still is) and before that materialism. But the latter terms seem to many (not me) to be bound to current physical theory and even billiard-ball views of hard, speeding, atoms.

Hi Ken,

Turns out Chris French is a friend of a friend. My friend, Achim, is a molecular parasitologist at U of Edinburgh and when I encouraged him to attend this event, he forwarded me an email from Dr. French, in which he sought input from all of his scientist friends in preparation for this discussion. Fun to be hearing about it from multiple angles. Just wish I could be there in person.


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