Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music

BOOK REVIEW from The Economist, October 16, 1999, Vol. 353, No. 8141, pages 10-11.

Science wars

Phony peace

The Social Construction of What?
By Ian Hacking, Harvard University Press; 270 pages; $29.95.
Pandora's Hope: An Essay On The Reality Of Science Studies.
By Bruno Latour. Harvard University Press; 332 pages; $45.

Did microbes exist before Louis Pasteur discovered them in 1864? This is the sort of puzzle that has scientists and practitioners of science and technology studies (STS) at each other's throats. A contentious new discipline that puts science under social and historical scrutiny, STS is a breath of oxygen to some and bunk to others.

If forced to take the question about microbes straight, most scientists would say that Pasteur's experiments revealed -- but couldn't have caused -- their existence. Not so fast, reply the STS crowd. Scientific discovery, they say, isn't like turning on a light and seeing what's in a room. Discovery involves a complicated give-and-take within a community of scientists, who argue about the experimental evidence until they find it convincing enough to put microbes on their canonical list of basic biological entities.

Now you might think that each of those are reasonable points which turn out, when you poke a bit, not to be in conflict at all. But reasonableness was an early casualty in what soon became a nasty and acrimonious war. The more extreme STS-ers claim that microbes did not exist in any true sense until their discovery. Across the divide, the angrier members of the working-science camp can all too often be heard defending primitive views of what makes a theory good science.

Radical STS-ers believe, with Nietzsche, that knowledge is a matter of power -- who decides what counts as true? -- and that we need to ask why science is felt to have special access to truth in ways denied to other sorts of inquiry. Science is a "social construction", on this strong STS view, and cannot be understood outside its human context.

Knowledge may bring you power, replies the scientific orthodoxy, but power can't create knowledge: only evidence and sound procedures do that. If you could find a language to talk to them with, you would find that space-aliens' science included electro-magnetism, quarks and the other familiar furniture of a common universe.

Deep differences, indeed. Is there any sign of truce or reconciliation? Ian Hacking, a philosopher at the University of Toronto, would like to lower the heat. Extremists, he says, are rare in either camp. Most scientists admit that scientific knowledge grows by successive approximations, and hardly any of the social constructionists really think that science and reality never touch. Mr Hacking illustrates both points in an admirable chapter on the formation of dolomite.

Flexible as he sounds, his heart is with the orthodoxy. He is not for agreement at any price, and his opening is fierce: "I do not want peace between constructionist and scientist. I want a better understanding of how they disagree, and why, perhaps, the twain shall never meet." At times he writes as if he could meet the constructions halfway, placing himself in the middle on some points. At others he dismisses them as prisoners of an elementary mistake: failing to see that although ideas of microbes might be "socially constructed", microbes themselves are out there on their own and real. Elaborating on this idea, he wonders whether the ultras on both sides have not in fact been arguing about different things from the beginning.

In search of his own olive branch, Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, takes us to the Amazon rainforest. As a leading STS radical, any peace signal from him deserves note. His painstaking description of soil-sampling shows the delicate logic of even the humblest inquiry. No snapshot of reality, the science here involves theorising, soil sampling, bagging, plotting, evaluating, drawing conclusions, writing up and, finally, refereed publication in a reputable journal.

Well, yes. But whoever thought science worked like a box camera in the first place? Mr Latour seems to be attacking the dimmest sort of naive realist. As he presses on, the olive branch disappears. Of course, there were no microbes before Pasteur, he asserts, invoking supertime to make this less farfetched: microbes did not exist in 1863's view of 1863 or before, but do exist in 1864's view of earlier times. Not everyone will find supertime a help. Does it mean, for example, that causes follow effects? That your parents didn't exist until you were born?

Bearing in mind the repeated insults of maths and physics to our best intuitions about the world, we need to think twice before rubbishing new ideas just because they are weird. There are crazy thoughts a-plenty on the orthodox side -- in quantum physics, for example. The slippery linkage between scientific and common-sense views of the world might seem a promising topic for Mr Latour to exploit on his side of the argument. But he skirts it and instead blows clouds of words that will leave many foes shaking their heads. An example: once the "shield of factishes" is stripped from science, Mr Latour avers, politics will be freed of its oldest tyranny, Greek rationalism.

In sum, Mr Latour's peace plan may well rekindle a row that had seemed to be dying. And Mr Hacking's best guess about how the science wars might end depends on accepting that they never really started. A rum business it is, questioning science.

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