I just gave a speech at George Mason, to a much more scholarly and academically oriented crowd than I’m used to addressing. The event, after all, was entitled “Who Owns Knowledge” and was sponsored by the cultural studies Ph.D. program. There was a time when these sorts of scholars, who study science in its social context, were at absolute loggerheads with members of the scientific community over the extent to which scientific knowledge is a) socially constructed; and b) profitably deconstructed.
I want to argue that those days have at least begun to be eclipsed, thanks to a clear and present crisis over political attacks on science that should bring the scientific community and the cultural/science studies set into strong allegiance. My evidence? Well, there’s a really interesting recommended reading that accompanies this conference which, I think, says it all. It’s a piece by none other than Bruno Latour, published in Critical Inquiry. And in it, Latour flagellates himself over the extent to which some of his famous critiques of science are now being misused in the hands of extremists and ideologues. After citing the cynical Luntz memo which tells Republicans to exaggerate uncertainty about climate science, Latour writes:
Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the “lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument-or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact-as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past-but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?
It was not wrong to participate in the invention of the field of science studies–but it is wrong to take the insights of science studies to such extremes as to deny the current crisis over science and politics, or to deny the basic relevance of good scientific information to public policy, or to deny that at least on some level, science provides a pretty good tool for accessing so-called “reality” as best we can (human shortcomings nothwithstanding). In short, Latour should stop feeling guilty, and start experimenting with how to use some of the intellectual tools he’s created to fight back against the current war on science. And he should call upon his colleagues to do the same.
It’s very valuable to study science in its social context. Many insights can be gleaned in this way. But they are not, I would submit, insights that lead to a position of absolute relativism about the value of science to society. So when science is under attack, it’s time for all who care about it to mount a strong defense. Let’s stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start targeting the actual source of the problem…