Continue to the content
Honorary Doctor Bruno Latour: “Scientists are our partners in a fight for survival”
© Dorothea Tuch
Depth interview

Honorary Doctor Bruno Latour: “Scientists are our partners in a fight for survival”

In the late 1970s, philosopher Bruno Latour debunked the myths around science. Today, he campaigns for the climate.

16 minutes
24 January 2021

In the late 1970s, philosopher Bruno Latour debunked the myths around science and stripped it of its deified status. He now campaigns for the climate and attempts to convince the general public that climate change and the science that supports it are not myths. The planet is in critical condition, Latour says, and this demands a new kind of society and politics. “The question is not whether we can solve the climate problem. This is an existential crisis.”

The work of Professor Bruno Latour (1947) is difficult to summarise in one article. The French philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist has studied diverse subjects, ranging from the origins of science to the concept of Modernity, the history of microbes and a failed attempt to modernise the Paris metro system.

Latour has written about economics, religion, politics and the philosophy of science – we are undoubtedly forgetting a number of subjects – and regularly collaborates with other scientists and artists. In recent years, he has focused almost entirely on geopolitics and geology, but he likewise does so from the most varied and surprising perspectives. “It is not surprising that some people don’t understand my work,” he tells us. “It is my mistake. I am not so easy to pin down (laughs).”

Rational?

Latour was born into a family of affluent winegrowers in Burgundy, but soon realised that he was ‘somewhat too clumsy’ to work in the vineyards. He studied philosophy at the University of Dijon, where he became fascinated with epistemology – the branch of philosophy that enquires into the nature and origins of knowledge. His career path began to zigzag when he got interested in anthropology, and started combining that discipline with sociology and philosophy.

The seed was planted during a long stay at the Ivory Coast. He was working as a volunteer on a French government study that sought to identify why French companies had such difficulty recruiting ‘competent’ black executives in their former colony. Latour saw that anthropological research often played the card of cultural difference and did not take sufficient account of social factors. For example, the educational system – which at the time was still French – only taught black engineering students abstract theories about machines, while they had never actually seen the machines in question.

When the black students had trouble understanding the technical drawings, this was put down to their ‘primitive’ African brains. The research was based on false premises, and people didn’t actually want black executives, Latour told The New York Times Magazine in 2018. “It was clearly a racist situation, which was hidden behind cognitive, pseudohistorical and cultural explanations.”

It got Latour thinking. Based on ethnographic research, Western anthropologists study the behaviour of exotic peoples, while they themselves escape this anthropological scrutiny. But what would happen if you were to apply the same research methods that are used to study ‘primitive’ African tribes to top researchers, who are held up as models of ‘Western rationality’? Latour put it to the test and observed researchers in their primary habitat: the laboratory.

“That had never been done before, so I was quite proud of the innovation,” he says. “With this kind of ‘symmetrical anthropology’, I wanted to short-circuit the whole debate between what is ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ or what is ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’. Moreover, there was a very old idea that science is absolutely rational and incontrovertible, which was poisoning social debate on several topics, ranging from religion to psychology or the arts.”

Due to the corona crisis, it is now very clear to everyone that you cannot limit society purely to human interaction. Microbes or viruses are part of society, and we even adapt our social interaction in function of them.

Lab life

Latour spent two years as a fly on the wall at the renowned Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in the USA. While the endocrinologist and future Nobel Prize winner Roger Guillemin was conducting research into neurohormones, Latour observed the scientific process in the lab. His research resulted in the influential book ‘Laboratory Life’ (1979), which he wrote with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar.

Their principal argument is that scientists do not discover but ‘construct’ a fact. Establishing scientific knowledge involves an entire techno-social process: ideas are converted into experiments, raw data is interpreted, manipulated or generated and then translated into papers, which in turn are approved by the scientific community. Facts only become ‘true’ when they enjoy sufficiently wide support. There are other important elements that one would not necessarily associate with science, such as coincidence, numbers that are difficult to verify, rhetoric, and persuasiveness.

“Scientists never just see bare facts, they have to be produced,” Latour explains. “And protected against the encroachment by companies or even colleagues […] It is probably more important than ever to be aware of that today.”

“At the time, I was interested in what enables the scientific community to produce facts. It is an interaction between various things. Besides the scientists’ brain, instruments and equipment are of course important, as are theories and calculations. But the interaction between the scientists themselves also plays a big role. The very interesting entities that try to convince each other, interpret and transform data […] and which also have to account for their methodology.”

In other words, the social dimension of science is inextricably connected to the facts. In ‘Science in Action’, which was published in 1987, Latour further developed his theories. He again avoided ‘ready-made science’, as you might find in press releases, newspaper articles or policy documents, and focused instead on ‘science in action’.

Among other things, he showed that human behaviour is often invoked when a theory turns out to be incorrect or is debunked. People usually point the finger at the scientist: it is due to human carelessness, incorrect calculations, scientific fraud … Inversely, the all too human processes that are necessary to establish scientific knowledge are often forgotten once a fact has been proved incontrovertibly. Indeed, the facts have always ‘spoken for themselves’. The human actions behind these facts are ‘black-boxed’.

Bruno Latour 2
© Maartje Geels

Controversial

Latour is now known as one of the pioneers of Science and Technology Studies (the field that studies the social aspects and implications of science, ed.). At the same time, his theories have sometimes led to criticism and controversy, not least because they undermine the once so inviolable, almost ‘divine’ status of science.

“I attempt to stay indifferent to criticism,” he says. “It limits progression. I think the excitement about a new discovery is much more important. It was also never my intention to cause controversy. The honorary doctorate from your University – about which I am deeply honoured – indicates that those theories are no longer controversial. I was just ahead of my time (laughs).”

“In the seventies, there was enormous ignorance about the way in which science is established,” he says. “My research seemed strange at the time, but now it is used as a weapon to defend science, for example against those who think that climate change is fake news, but also against those who think that simply saying something is ‘true’ is sufficient to convince people. I realised forty years ago that both positions are wrong.”

In the eighties, Latour was one of the pioneers of the actor-network theory, along with Michel Callon and John Law. It was a new theory and method for sociological research. Among other things, it claims that non-human elements such as technology and nature play a role in social processes and establishing science. During his research in the lab, Latour had noticed that non-human actors like a microscope, computer or fibre sample can be as important in establishing a scientific fact as the researchers themselves. The more ‘actors’ were involved in the production of a fact – and thus the larger the network behind it – the more difficult it became to refute such a fact.

“Sociologists long had a tendency only to take account of human relationships, wherever ‘social relations’ were concerned,” Latour says. “When I studied Pasteur and his research into microbes, it became crystal clear that the definition of ‘society’ should be expanded. Due to the corona crisis, it is now very clear to everyone that you cannot limit society purely to human interaction. Microbes or viruses are part of society, and we even adapt our social interaction in function of them, with social distancing, tracing apps or mouth masks. To say nothing of all the forms of technology that are part of our lives. If sociology were only to take account of purely human relations, we wouldn’t understand a thing about what is going on in the world.”

Modern human

The most pressing thing that is happening at the moment, according to Latour, is not the corona pandemic but the ecological crisis. Over the last few years, he has focused particularly on ecological issues. According to Latour – and many other scientists – we live in the Anthropocene, the age in which the earth is undergoing the effects of human activity. The planet is no longer the stage on which humans can simply do whatever they like, but an active player – an actor that reacts to our behaviour and ‘hits back’. Latour consistently refers to ‘Gaia’, inspired by James Lovelock’s controversial Gaia hypothesis, which states that the planet self-regulates to keep itself alive.

According to Latour, his work on the climate was not inspired by any particular interest in nature – “Like the people who are into bees and insects” – but was another result of his research into science itself. “Specifically, it was the result of my philosophical work on Modernity and the weight that Modernity has placed on nature’s shoulders over the past three hundred years,” Latour says.

He refers to his best-known essay, ‘Nous n'avons jamais été modernes’ (1991), in which he rejects the age-old division between culture and nature. In Modernity, humanity placed itself at the centre and above nature, and consolidated this position through scientific laws. But that does not mean that society has genuinely disconnected itself from the Earth. Nature continues to have an unmistakeable influence on ‘modern’ society and vice versa. We have, in short, never been modern. The ecological crisis – the biggest consequence of the human subjugation of nature – is the best example.

According to Latour, the condition of the planet is critical, but why is it taking so long for humans to tackle the problem of climate change? “That is also related to our conception of Modernity,” he says. “The reason why people react so slowly or take no action at all, is not a cognitive problem; it is not due to a lack of knowledge. It is related to the entire Modernist endeavour for ‘progress’, intensified production and materialism, and this is completely contrary to the direction in which we should be going. Yes, people are slow, but if you look at the way they are educated, how they have been taught to behave, almost trained by Modernism over the past three hundred years, then things simply cannot go quickly.”

Not a single political issue can be promoted by the state if people do not push for it.

Parliament of things

According to Latour, it is too late to turn the tide. “I am not qualified to contradict what the majority of scientists say. We cannot reverse this, but at the same time we have to learn to live with the fact that we will come too late without becoming desperate. It is not a question of solving the problem, it is instead an existential crisis.”

Latour says that we must invent a new kind of place and a new identity. “We find ourselves in a state of mutation,” he says. “And that causes confusion. Like in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’: you suddenly wake up and you are an insect.”

This disorientation caused by climate change is also the theme of Latour’s most recent exhibition and book, ‘Critical Zones’ (2020), for which he collaborated both with fellow academics as well as with authors and artists. The hypothesis is that the modern person vacillates between two worlds: one in which they produce and consume, own property and have adopted a certain lifestyle, and one in which natural resources are depleted and forests are felled, and they have no form of legal protection or political representation whatsoever. ‘The world in which we live vs. the world from which we live’.

According to Latour, the latter is now starting to react to human behaviour, to fight back as it were, and we can no longer ignore it, as we have done for too long. The two worlds must now be united, which requires a very different way of living. One which is diametrically opposed to the dominant model of economic growth, globalisation and modernisation.

In short, Latour says that we must ‘land on Earth’ again. And this also demands a new kind of politics, about which he writes at length in his essay ‘Où atterrir? Comment s'orienter en politique’ (2017). This new political constellation cannot only take humanity into account, but must also consider technology and ecology. Indeed, political choices have – often drastic – influences on the planet, and we are not sufficiently aware of them.

The underlying interwovenness of humans and things is not new to Latour. It is the basis of his actor-network theory, and in ‘Nous n'avons jamais été modernes’, he first advocated for a ‘parliament of things’. His essay ‘Face à Gaïa: Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique’ (2015) ends with a description of an art experiment that more or less puts this into practice. In 2015, the ‘Théâtre des négociations’ was staged in Paris. Students re-enacted the Copenhagen climate conference, but this time not only with representatives of countries, but also with delegations that represented the interests of non-human actors, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, or animals, as a way to take everyone into account.

Der Maulwurf Latour 0606 web
© Dorothea Tuch

Dress rehearsal

We do not yet have a parliament of things, but the climate has, to a large extent, determined political developments over the past few years, Latour says, though not in a positive sense. “Think, for example, of Trump withdrawing from the climate accords and shouting ‘America First’. It comes down to saying: ‘There is no climate change here. And we don’t care what happens to the rest of the world.’ It is literally abandoning Earth and moving to another planet. The same is true of the disappointing UN climate summit, or the policies of Russia, India, Brazil or China.”

Latour pins his hopes on the EU. “Europe, which has rightly been criticised for its imperialism, is slightly ahead in terms of ecological politics,” he says. “But still, not a single political issue can be promoted by the state if people do not push for it.”

Latour is thus full of admiration for the ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement and the activism of the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. In earlier interviews, he described her as a contemporary Joan of Arc and said that he was moved to tears by her speech at the UN climate summit. “She has made a big difference. I see her as a very important prophetic figure. And at the same time, I have always been worried about her. She ought to be able to return to school quietly. It is not fair that she is doing the work that we – the older generations – should be doing; that we are okay with the reversal of the generations, as she herself said.”

The corona crisis has pushed political and media attention on the climate crisis into the background. Does he find it frustrating that countries all over the world are taking far-reaching measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus but that these same actions are not possible to save the climate? “I have often argued that the corona crisis has a link to climate change, and not only with respect to ecology – the coronavirus in part came about due to felling forests in China to accommodate demographic growth – but also in terms of administration and politics. It is a dress rehearsal for what we will all have to face eventually.”

“Putting the brakes on the ‘train of progress’ and stopping all kinds of activities that have become self-evident in the short-term will both be very important climate measures,” Latour says. “But there are differences, of course. The state has the authority to take such measures for public health, but it cannot intervene in our lives in the same way to save the climate. It ought to be possible, but it isn’t. The populace would never accept it. And yet the next crisis in the future will be much worse.”

The corona crisis is a dress rehearsal for what we will all have to face eventually with climate change.

Not wanting to know

(Climate) scientists play a crucial role in the struggle to save the climate. At the same time, we live in a ‘post-truth’ age in which fake news is spread constantly. You might say that this confronts science with greater challenges than ever […].

“Scientists have always been in the minority, and it has never been easy to make radically new ideas acceptable,” Latour says. “It was no easier for Descartes in the seventeenth century than it is for scientists today. One difference is that scientists have to reach people who are attempting to live on different planets at the same time, as I said earlier. People who do not believe in climate change; You can have all the facts at your disposal and give all the lectures you want, but you will never convince them.”

“Some people choose to live in a different reality. Just look – again – at the USA: first we had Trump and now there is QAnon, which circulates the most bizarre conspiracy theories. And the next thing that pops up will no doubt be even more ridiculous.”

“Scientific information can only do so much,” Latour says. “To ensure that it is understood, you need very strong institutions, and coherent people. We oughtn’t to be too hard on scientists for not being able to communicate their facts effectively. Sometimes it is their own fault, but there are other factors at play as well. ‘The will not to know’: ignoring things of which you are actually aware, just to boost the economy and to continue doing whatever you’re doing. It is very perverse, and it strikes me as something new that is particular to our age.”

Latour continues patiently to pursue his work. The former professor of sociology at Sciences Po Paris may be retired, but he is not one to rest on his laurels. He organises exhibitions around the world and lectures to the general public across France. He would like to steer the conversation between scientists and citizens in a new direction, but he says he is not involved in ‘science communication’.

“Because the emphasis there is too strongly on ‘education’,” he says. “That is insufficient, especially now that scientists have such a lack of authority. The last thing you should do now is to make them come across like schoolmasters. We are partners in a fight for survival, which is something different entirely (laughs).”