Stick to the science – an interview with Bruno Latour

[Unedited writedown from an interview to Bruno Latour @ Festivaletteratura 2018 on occasion of Scienceground 2, Mantova, Sunday September 9th, 2018. Edited Italian version on iltascabile.it]

[On the dispute with Sokal-Bricmont] A big one I had in a big theatre in the middle of London. Eight hundred people screaming, half of them against me and half of them against Sokal. Sokal is a nice guy actually, he was defending the last stand of the old epistemology. But now all of that is gone, actually Sokal wrote that we won. He was interrogated about climate skepticism, and everyone realized that the ones that were defending the scientists were us, and that the whole epistemological defense of science was no use against the big corporations and big deniers. So, the Sokal affair was the last ditch, so to speak, the last effort of the traditional epistemology to defend itself, and then we realized it was a very bad defense, because when you are attacked, seriously, by a denier of climate science, you need another version of science.

[On postmodernism] All of these disputes are 20th century. We’re in another century. Sokal is a 20th century question, postmodernism is a 20th century question. Now we’re in a completely different question, which is: surviving. The association with scientists is completely different. The question is completely different: the question of reorganizing civilization, so to speak. So all this dispute about modernism, postmodernism… it was critical, it was cynical, it was second degree, a parody. But we’re not in that now, we’re in something completely serious: how do we make science still believed and pursued by people. The situation was entirely different when I started to study forty years ago, and I was accused of criticizing the scientists because we were describing how they work, and that was seen as a critique. But forty years later the only way to still defend science is to do exactly this. And now I’m an old person but I still do exactly the same sort of things with different type of scientists, geochemists. It’s exactly the same work but the situation has so much changed that in the forty years we went through you had to break the hegemony of scientific authority, and now you have to say “how can we still have some people believe in science?”.

It happened to me actually in a meeting at a cocktail party when I saw people of the French IPCC, and they came to me and said: “Bruno, we need your help: we’re attacked by other scientists, that have a Nobel prize, mostly physicists, and they’re attacking us and criticizing our science! Can you help?” And I said “well, it’s funny because we have been trying to do that for thirty years, and the only reaction was that we were relativists”. So the situation has completely reversed. If you now live in the United States, which I often do, it’s like religion: people are completely empty of any science, I mean, they don’t even believe the first beginning of it. So again the whole work we did with Harry [Collins] and many others [was]: this is the way science is produced, you need people, you need institutions, you need money, you need colleagues, you need instruments, you need experiments, you need publications, and the whole material apparatuses of science. But when we were describing this, in the 20th-century version science was supposed to be in the heavens.

[On rationality] History has judged. No matter how many times you can say that science embodies rationality, it didn’t make one single change in the state of disbelief of people around science, right now, today, in the 21st century. But in the 20th century, science was associated with so many themes like rationality, the scientific worldview, and all of this seemed to be defending science and spreading it to the people, as everyone in communication knows. But not now. It’s the time of fake news, of war about Darwinism, war about climate science, war simply about the funding of science. If you associate science with rationality, people won’t believe you no more. So, the strategy of people like Harry Collins and me – even if we disagree on about everything, especially about the sociology, [but] not in terms of science studies – was to say the more you explain the way science is made the better it will be. [First], for scientists: because one of the reasons why it is so difficult to get people interested in science is that there is no comparison between the dream of science which is still sold somewhere, and the practice – as every PhD student learns. It’s like learning sex during the Victorian period, you arrive at the wedding night, and then you have a lot of things that you have to do which you didn’t want to imagine. And the second thing is that it will be better for people because we restart the beginning of what is authority, and confidence in science will increase. This is a bet we did. The Sokal moment was exactly when people still said the opposite: let’s defend that science is associated with rationality, and everyone who is discussing that is actually debunking science. And we said “no, no, you have to teach the way science is produced in a sort of realistic way”. It will be better on the long run, but right now it’s hard to decide what will happen. Because the very idea of what is an institution necessary for science is difficult, and I’m sure you have experimented this when you teach. Because most people still have the idea of science as something which is in the sky, in the heaven. It’s very difficult to say: let’s have a laic, a mundane idea of science.

[On philosophy of science] You don’t need rationality. Yes, this is the difference: why would you stick to the philosophy of science? It’s not necessary, stick to the science! The science is not actually made of philosophical ideas, it’s made of patches of lots of little things, like experimental data, puzzles in your head, thousands of other things which lead you to the capacity to make the things you study convince those [unintelligible]. It’s a very fascinating system which has nothing to do with rationality. But if you ask yourself “when was I helped by the idea that I’m actually rational” in technical detail? Is there one single technical detail of all your exercise as PhD or writers, which is helped by saying “I’m embodying rationality”? Ridiculous. Not one single experiment. In the 20th century, different from the 21st, when you were teaching the students, if you were giving addresses, it was good to give the impression that you were incarnating rationality spreading into the world. But now? People will laugh at you!

[On sociology of science] You cannot give a social explanation of science. It’s completely implausible because sociology is so poor. I’ve studied Pasteur for many years, and once you’ve said that Pasteur is a catholic, a reactionary, that he lives in Paris, you have explained maybe a hundredth of what he is doing. The rest is that he works on microbes, and those microbes are doing things in the lab under his experimental skills which they didn’t do before. So the dispute with the English sociology of science is that they believe in sociology, and I don’t. But I can show you why microbes in the hands of Pasteur did make him prove his point better than the others, and I’ve done it. So, this the way we dispute it, it’s a technical dispute. If you read Harry’s book on gravitational waves, which is an absolutely remarkable book, the social aspects of it are minimum. Most of it is about experiments, building the experiment, most of it is very similar to the sort of things I’m interested in.

I just published a paper in the Anthropocene review – Anthropocene is an interesting domain – and it’s a paper published with… the first author is an architect, the second is me and the third one is a geochemist. Why? Because we have proposed another version, vision on what the Earth looks like from a science point of view, their science point of view. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in, not doing the sociology.

But when you stick to science you get inside society. Because it’s the two faces of the same coin – which is my main difference with Harry. My different society is associations and not society. So when you do get into the science of microbes, or viruses, you get into associations which are part of what people call “society”. This is why you don’t need to get out of science to explain it socially, you have to get in the sciences and then the connection of the scientific objects themselves will define society, for you… Quite obvious with microbes, it’s more difficult for particles.

In the 20th century the physicists were the one on the top of the ladder, and you had all this crap about finding the absolute unit, the final things that will explain everything. I work with scientists that are on the soil: you bring soil scientists on a piece of land, and that site has as many mystery for them in these four meters squared… so this is completely different. Now we need these guys, these are the ones. We need these guys to understand what the soil is. What the viruses are doing in them, what the likens are doing in them. And they’re sciences which have been sometimes despised by… you guys [most of the audience was composed of physicists].

But we don’t need a general view of science. What’s the link between particle physics and soil science? They publish papers…

The next step in science communication is not to talk about rationality but to talk about these beings. And if you take bacteria you will develop the whole science and the whole society almost simultaneously. But you could take stone, or you could take worms, or air. We are back to where science should have been. I was in Palazzo Te, today, and it’s very amusing to compare 16th century period and now because we are very much in the same sort of situation: trying to find an order for multiplicity of beings. It’s much more interesting than inside the moment, the parenthesis – so to speak – when we were obsessed by the scientific worldview.

So the anthropological nature of the interest for science is extremely diverse and it looks like this sort of thing: if you have to rebuild Palazzo Te now, what will be the program? I understand that it was one of the Gonzaga who wrote the program: this room I want it with Hercule, etc. Now if you say I want one room with bacteria… what would be the shape of the space and what sort of disciplines will you bring in, and what sort of images will you bring with you? It would be almost completely different from what bacteria was thirty years ago. And it will be different bacteria, in addition.

If you study extrasolar planets you might have some lunatic people who say they don’t exist, but they are not immediately on your back, inside your discipline trying to cut it. For Earth sciences, [they are] immediately inside: so it has a different epistemology and it requires a very different way for being presented and defended. Because now science has to be defended. It’s absolutely useless to defend science rationality if there is no money. You can say “well science is rational and the future of humanity and progress is only done on science”, but if there is no funding? So certain people [ask] “who are the people who help funding science?” And these are congressmen, lobbies, industrialists, the general public. Science has to be defended, we should not forget that. It’s not a question of people understanding sciences: science is threatened, like it could disappear… It’s not science communication, it’s science defense.

Remember the time when people said that you need the ultimate particle of physics and that the rest will be explained by dudududududu… No one will believe it now. So this is a great time for science, but not necessarily the same science.

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