A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, February 06, 2004

In praise of Latour.....the vade-mecum for all scientists, science correspondents and environmental journalists.....

We are currently obsessed by the 'battlefield' between 'Western enlightenment' and 'the Other'. We are likewise deeply concerned by a perceived rift between 'society' and 'science', and, within science, by snide distinctions between 'science' and 'media', between 'popularisers' and 'researchers', and between the science text and its communication. Should the construct, 'Susan Greenfield', be made FRS? Is emotion and hype destroying 'science'? Can people trust 'science' and 'scientists'? Why is the linkage between 'science' and 'policy' so fractured? Is 'science' being abused for political agendas? We all know the questions, on which there have been too many recent articles and commentaries, many facile, a few informative. Even 'Susan Greenfield' is constructed, and deconstructed, like a Picasso portrait, from many angles (e.g., see the front page of today's The Times).

What is strange, however, in all the media output on this, whether by journalists or by specialist science commentators, is the glaring absence of any reference to those philosophers who have been addressing such critical questions for the last ten years, or so, the most important of whom is undoubtedly Bruno Latour. Indeed, I would doubt the credentials of any to comment in depth if they have never read, for example, Latour's seminal We have never been modern (originally Nous n'avons jamais été modernes, 1991).(1) All scientists should be encouraged to read this profound work - many times (it is tough!). No scientist should be allowed to go down from a 'modern' University with a degree in 'science' if they have not done so. Indeed, I would be fascinated to know how many current FRS have confronted Latour themselves - The Royal Society would be a far more responsive, and socially-accepted, body, if they had.

In deconstructing his own 'hybrids', Latour strikes at the roots of the questions I have listed above. I will quote a key passage (in the fine translation by Catherine Porter):

"The tragedy becomes more painful still when the antimoderns, taking what the moderns say about themselves at face value, want to save something from what looks to them like a shipwreck. The antimoderns firmly believe that the West has rationalized and disenchanted the world, that it has truly peopled the social with cold and rational monsters which saturate all of space, that it has definitively transformed the premodern cosmos into a mechanical interaction of pure matters. But instead of seeing these processes as the modernizers do - as glorious, albeit painful, conquests - the antimoderns see the situation as an unparalleled catastrophe. Except for the plus or minus sign, moderns and antimoderns share all the same convictions. The postmoderns, always perverse, accept the idea that the situation is indeed catastrophic, but they maintain that it is to be acclaimed rather than bemoaned! They claim weakness as their ultimate virtue.....

What do the antimoderns do, then, when they are confronted with this shipwreck? They take on the courageous task of saving what can be saved: souls, minds, emotions, interpersonal relations, the symbolic dimension, human warmth, local specificities, hermeneutics, the margins and the peripheries. An admirable mission, but one that would be more admirable still if all those sacred vessels were actually threatened."

I would encourage ("Get to it you lot!") all journalists, all commentators, and all scientists who wish to engage in the debate to read Latour before they even think about putting keyboard to screen on the topic again. Most of what has been written to date has been simplistic; some has just re-invented the pre-modern or modern wheel. Latour has said most of it already, and much more cogently.

I believe that both those who call themselves 'scientists' and those who designate themselves as 'environmental' or 'science' correspondents need urgently to learn how to deconstruct themselves, and their own 'hybrids', in, and for, our 'non-modern world'.

Your prime reading matter ("Pay attention there, you at the back!") for the weekend should thus be Latour's We have never been modern and J.-F. Lyotard's The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge (originally La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, 1979).(2) A fine claret and Brendel playing Schubert might help the medicine go down.

But, I think you will be surprised by the reflections you see in the mirrors of these two great philosophers.
(1) Bruno Latour: We have never been modern. (Trans. Catherine Porter). Harrow: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-7450-1321-X (pbk), 1993.
(2) J.-F. Lyotard. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. (Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi). (Theory and history of literature, Volume 10). Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-1450-6 (pbk). 1984 (many later reprints).

Philip, trying to legitimise the problem (a bit)! Lunch.

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