In Defense of a Messier Science
Down to Earth
by Bruno Latour
Polity Press, 2018
The field of science and technology studies (STS) dissects the production of knowledge. Rather than take scientific fact in its isolated form – a black box, as philosopher Bruno Latour describes it in his earlier workScience in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).– we’re allowed to pry the box open and examine it closely; “science-in-the-making,” a process rather than a static end result: who are the actors, where did this experiment take place, with what tools, under what conditions, influenced by which biases? The umbrella thesis is always the same: scientists are people, too. Latour puts it clearly: “No matter how far out they send their thoughts, researchers always have their feet firmly anchored in clay.”Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2018).
It’s an obvious statement when we examine any science or technology at all with scrutiny. Photography’s origin, for example, is rife with subjective ideas on race. Light skin was the baseline standard for chemical color calibration; developing color-film technology used to require the use of a Shirley card, named after a white woman with brown hair. When Shirley’s coloring looked right, the whole film passed the technician’s quality-control test."How Kodak's Shirley Cards Set Photography's Skin-Tone Standard."Look at any textbook on reproductive health, and you’ll find gendered descriptions of aggressive sperm pummeling into a passive egg, a narrative discredited most compellingly in Emily Martin’s “The Egg and The Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.”Signs 16 (Spring 1991): 485–501.The way in which astronomers discuss extraterrestrial life today is deeply colonial in nature, prioritizing questions of resource extraction and faraway human colonization over anything else. Amazon’s AI recruiting technology – now shut down – was revealed to show a strong bias against women, as it was trained to focus on men’s résumés.Jeffrey Dustin, “Amazon Scraps Secret AI Recruiting Tool That Showed Bias Against Women,” Reuters, October 9, 2018.A 2016 ProPublica report showed how Facebook allowed racial discrimination in housing ads.Julia Angwin, Ariana Tobin, and Madeleine Varner, “Facebook (Still) Letting Housing Advertisers Exclude Users by Race,” ProPublica, November 21, 2017.
These examples represent a tiny sampling of the ways in which ideas about race, gender, and other social norms are deeply embedded into seemingly objective epistemologies, knowledges, and inventions. It’s what makes STS such an important field. It aims not to do away with facts — it does not ask for the shutdown of all photography, of all streamlining AI tools, or of any study at all on reproductive health. Instead, it wants a stronger science: one pursued by a more diverse group of scientists, that de-centers whiteness and maleness as the standards for which new technology is built and against which all else is measured.
A more robust science like the one I and other STS enthusiasts want, in fact, is a heartier retort to anti-science claims. Take, for example, the shape of the Earth. If a flat-Earther makes claims against evidence of a globe, the response could be absolutely transparent about its political, subjective nature, rather than merely hammering the facts: not, “You’re wrong; this is the fact, and that’s that.” Instead: “This is who the scientists were, who they worked with, who they were funded by, what tools they used, the kinds of evidence they gathered, what factors they were influenced by, and why they came to this conclusion.” Using this kind of language, the viability of a fact becomes irrefutable. It’s a lot harder to come up with an equally robust retort when there’s little to hold it upright.
And yet, in the face of climate denial, “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and the Trump era, this lens looks dangerous. What is the difference between a social constructivist view on science and a general science skepticism? From afar, the differences seem scant. It’s dangerous to poke and prod, to think about biases and constructs and ways in which a fact may not be as inviolable as we thought. A liberal scholar questioning scientific fact risks aligning herself with a conservative politics, especially if the fact points to global warming.
We can take almost any STS scholar and see a 180-degree turn the moment they begin to talk about climate. Take Naomi Oreskes. In her early work, she writes about the project of science as an open black box, asking detailed questions about where, how, and why. Her 1996 paper “Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science”Osiris 11 (1996): 87–113.argues that by lionizing moments of scientific discovery, the long, mundane calculations done by female astronomers who studied gravity – which she writes was the real substance of scientific work – were forgotten. It’s a classic STS take, in which, as Ludwik Fleck would say, we see these astronomers within their particular thought collective.“Ludwik Fleck and the Thought Collective,” scihi.org/ludwik-fleck-thought-collective.We look at science as something that happens in a particular place, is done by particular people, and is subject to all the same socioeconomic paradigms as the rest of us.
Fourteen years later, Oreskes publishes “My Facts are Better than Your Facts,”In Peter Howlett and Mary S. Morgan, eds., How Well Do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 136–166.in which she delineates the work of the Western Fuels Association, an organization of coal producers who actively worked to position global warming as a controversial topic in the American mind.Western Fuels Association 2016/2017 Annual Report.But the way Oreskes tells this tale is completely different from her approach in “Objectivity or Heroism?” If a reader were to study this 2010 piece and no other STS work, their notions of conventional objectivity would remain unscathed at best and reinscribed at worst. In 1996, Oreskes introduced us to astronomers as real people in real spaces, who are influenced by everything from gender norms to historical assumptions about the Earth’s crust. While the Western Fuels Association receives this treatment in her 2010 essay, the scientists who oppose them do not.
This makes sense for Oreskes’ argument, of course. Scientists backed by the Western Fuels Association were motivated by profit and the generation of false opacity. Their opposition — the ostensibly “good” or “objective” scientists – were likely motivated by factors like professional credibility, job security in their academic lab, and a genuine pursuit to understand an enormously complex phenomenon. Against that backdrop, we should certainly side against the coal producers. But Oreskes doesn’t explain it that way. Instead, she presents science as a discipline that exposes the real truth and the Western Fuels Association as pseudo-scientists who take advantage of science’s hard-earned authority to cloud the facts.
This kind of language is not unique to Oreskes. Paul Edwards’ A Vast Machine, published in 2010,Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).spends 430 pages explaining why it is not possible for scientists, no matter their training or the intricacy of their models, to come up with a perfectly verifiable understanding of either the past or future climate. He even characterizes climate scientists as historians, because they rely on data that was collected in the past to understand long-term trends. But toward the very end of his book, Edwards completely changes his tune. He writes that, in the eyes of STS scholars, “Science became little more than ideology or groupthink, within which any belief at all might come to count as ‘knowledge’ (I have actually heard some of my colleagues utter such phrases).”A Vast Machine, 437.It is such a surprising end to his analysis — why discredit, or at least heavily complicate, the very framework he utilized (and with which he identifies) so harshly?
In light of these prevailing retractions, Bruno Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth, is especially compelling. It’s a discussion of climate issues seeped in the world of Trumpism, but Latour doesn’t suddenly shirk from his messy view of science as other STS scholars have done. For him, it’s still science — not Science — even when he’s talking about the climate. And what is so new about his take is the argument that this critical eye actually strengthens the case for a climate change that is real, important, and infinitely worth addressing.
Down to Earth distinguishes two different kinds of science. One emerged as soon as we had the means to examine the Earth from afar. It takes a distant vantage point, “the view from nowhere,” in which the goal is exactly that: “to know is to know from the outside.”Down to Earth, 68.He refers to this category of thinking in lots of different ways: the “Galilean invention” bringing knowledge that’s “beamed from Sirius” to find facts that are “external, objective, and knowable.”Ibid., 70.These are the foil to an epistemology that’s quite different, which he defines by the shorthand “Lovelockian,”Named for James Lovelock, a British environmental scientist who devised the Gaia hypothesis, an idea rooted in the notion that all life on Earth is part of an entity that regulates Earth’s atmospheric processes, which are self-regulating. See, e.g., his book Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2006).referring to a long line of scholars who view the world as one composed of agents that actively shape their environment. To name one simple example, in a Lovelockian view, the very composition of the air is, in part, the result of the agents that breathe it. There are no concrete boundaries between “organism” and “environment.”Down to Earth, 76.From the Galilean perspective, this coproduction looks odd — it is difficult to see such entangled, overlapping threads from a great distance. Galileans may add the organism-as-agent component, but it isn’t intrinsically part of the tale.
That’s a really important distinction. Physical laws are the same as seen from Sirius as they are as seen from Earth, but the read on them is vastly distinct. For Galileans, nature is a static resource to exploit. For Lovelockians, it would be naive to assume that organisms don’t react to their environment and, in turn, actively shape it. “The essential political point,” Latour writes, “is that the Earth’s reaction to human action looks like an aberration in the eyes of those who believe in a terrestrial world made up of Galilean objects, and it appears self-evident to those who see it as a concatenation of Lovelockian agents.”Ibid., 80.For a Lovelockian thinker, then, anthropogenic climate change is an easier pill to swallow. Activities necessary to human existence, like consuming food and water and producing energy, are encompassed within the natural sciences. There isn’t such a black-and-white line between “organism” and “environment.” Of course we’re actively shaping the world around us. Of course the world is going to react to our activities. The question is what we intend to do about it.
We don’t need to do away with rationality in order to gain this animate view of objects-as-agents, humans-as-agents, environment-as-agent. “We need all the sciences, but positioned differently.… It is essential to acquire as much cold-blooded knowledge as possible about the heated activity of an Earth finally grasped from up close.”Ibid., 74.It isn’t just that STS isn’t replete with climate deniers; it’s that we cannot move forward without picking apart the epistemology. We need Lovelockian glasses for Galilean objects. Otherwise, how can we possibly understand as political a “nature” that has been so thoroughly claimed to be objective?
The way photos were color-calibrated, not black bodies, was the problem. The way recruiting algorithms were written, not female engineers, was the problem. What does it mean to apply this lens to climate science? Maybe we would begin to see more clearly that those who don’t embrace apocalyptic climate narratives are protesting the institutions that produce them or the solutions that emerge from them, not the facts themselves. Perhaps we would see that we can’t just remove human needs from the equation in order to find environmental solutions — because the environment, by Latour’s definition, includes humans. If we’re transparent about the ways that different knowledges are created, then suddenly individual facts can’t stand on equal ground by simple virtue of the fact that they’re Facts — they need a robust process and epistemology to hold them up, and everyone should get to see that.
What’s interesting about the time we’re living in now is that the questions coming from both sides of the political aisle are aligned. As accessibility to knowledge expands, we all want to know where it comes from. But instead of doubling down on the usual, old, bad epistemology — “Just listen to me! This is a fact! It came from a white-coat scientist in a lab; no more questions!” — we can replace it with something better: “Here’s how I searched for this, here’s what I was motivated by, and here’s what I learned. Where are your ideas coming from?”
As I see it, all Latour is asking for is a more modest science.