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6 February 2019updated 04 Sep 2021 4:58pm

Bruno Latour: the philosopher fighting to save science from itself

In his latest book Down to Earth, the French thinker warns that facts alone are no defence against populism. 

By Hettie O'Brien

In 2010, as debate raged over whether climate change was caused by human activity, Bruno Latour, one of France’s most renowned philosophers, sat around a table in Paris with 15 industrialists and a professor of climatology. One industrialist asked the professor: “Why should we believe you, any more than the others?” After a long pause, the climatologist responded: “If people don’t trust the institution of science, we’re in serious trouble.”

What surprised Latour was how, rather than simply citing facts, the professor explained the intricate network of floating buoys, satellites and weather stations that analysed the climate, the principle of peer review and the doubts inherent to manufacturing scientific truth. “Five or ten years ago, I don’t believe that a researcher would have spoken… about trust in the institution of science,” the philosopher later wrote.

Latour, 71, has done more to disrupt the idea of scientific objectivity than any other living thinker. In a series of books published in the 1970s and 1980s, the philosopher upended the notion that scientists investigate a collection of facts that exist out there in the world. He defined science as a process and argued that facts emerge in networks; their truth depends not on their intrinsic validity, but on their relation to the institutions and communities that sustain them.

He approached the laboratory as an anthropologist would a tribe. Trevor Pinch, a professor at Cornell University, recounts a presentation the philosopher gave in 1976, presenting a series of black and white slides showing a laboratory’s roof and refuse system, with no “nature” in sight. “This funny French man was showing us a laboratory like it was a factory that produced truth,” he says.

Yet as Latour sought to unmask the scientific process, academics accused him of relativising truth. In their 1994 book, Higher Superstition, the biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt argued that the philosopher had jeopardised public trust in the scientific process. The “science wars” of the 1990s, a series of academic disputes, pitted realists such as Richard Dawkins, who defended the objectivity of science, against constructivists like Latour, who unsettled this picture.

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Today, as disinformation flourishes, critics argue that the work of “postmodernists” such as Latour has – intentionally or not – encouraged a dangerous nihilism that plays into the hands of climate denialists. If facts are socially produced, what is to stop people from believing that the truth is subjective?

Latour’s intention was never to undermine public trust in science, though. Indeed, his most recent book, Down to Earth, accepts climate change as an urgent fact. As he put it when I recently spoke to him from Paris: “The more we show how science is made, the more we can talk with credibility about what it achieves.”

If anything, our post-truth politics affirm Latour’s ideas. In an era of conspiracy-thinking, the fragility of facts and forms of expertise we once exalted is being shown. As Latour writes in Down to Earth, “facts remain robust only when they are supported by… institutions that can be trusted”.

For people to believe in a shared set of facts, they have to inhabit a shared world – something Latour argues that mounting inequality and the erosion of social safety nets have thwarted. Brexit and Trump voters, he writes, aren’t suffering from “cognitive deficiencies”. Liberals’ great error is to assume that populists simply don’t have the right information at their disposal.

Down to Earth frames the politics of the past 50 years through the lens of climate change. Stratospheric inequality, the retrenchment of the welfare state and the spread of climate change denial are all part of a single phenomenon: a ruling elite that has sought to escape the impending climate crisis while at the same time denying its existence. This fantasy of escape extends to both the technophile millionaires buying up pastures in New Zealand and to the new cadre of right-wing politicians who deny climate change while erecting borders and walls to shut out the world.

“I didn’t imagine that someone would tell the rest of the world to go to hell – this is the first time we’re seeing politicians who no longer speak of civilising the rest of the world,” Latour told me of Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

As the planet burns, people clamour for the soil of nation states. It’s for this reason that Latour is fascinated by Brexit – he returns to it multiple times during our conversation. “With Brexit, what began as a question of identity has since rematerialised as a connection to the earth, with ministers forced to concede that there will be problems with lorries at Dover, with importing toilet paper – it’s as though the UK has been forced to realise it’s attached to Europe,” he said.

Throughout his work, Latour has struggled to answer how we might forge a politics that encompasses life on earth. His current research project, a collaboration with geochemists studying the “critical zone” – the earth’s outer crust – stems from his interest in magnifying how science is made. If we have a shared earthly reality, this is it: a miniscule sliver between the lithosphere and atmosphere that is the centre of terrestrial life, inhabited and irreversibly changed by humanity.

“On the other hand,” Latour added irreverently, “if you read the scientific literature and see how big the problem of changing the world is, the idea of escaping makes a lot of sense – if you’re rich, that is.”

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This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe