Science in Action

Part III

From Short to Longer Networks

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.

Passage #1: (185)

Questions about causes do not deserve an answer if the existence of the effect is not proven first. There would be no special factor to discover for why people believe irrational things, if this irrationality was simply a consequence of looking from the inside of the network to its outside – after having bracketed out all the resources necessary for this network to exist, to extend and to be maintained. There is no use in having a discipline like the sociology of knowledge, that tries to account for non-scientific beliefs, if all questions of irrationality are merely artefacts produced by the place from which they are raised.

Question #1: (211-212)

“Can we say, for instance, that scientists moving through the world are more ‘disinterested’, more ‘rational’, more concerned by the things ‘themselves’, less ‘culturally determined’, more ‘conscious’ than the people they meet along the way?”

Bringing, as they no doubt do, their networks, ideologies, and the conceptions that are a consequence thereof, with them to interactions, do the explorers not conflate the issues of whom is rational/irrational as outlined by Latour? For example, the case in which the Trobriand islander’s monologue brings an entirely different perspective to the situation for the jury in court, where an outsider having knowledge concerning the land tenure system changes the verdict. I don’t just mean that the worldviews are different, as is obviously the case; but the issue of differing pools of information, ways of getting at the information, ways of translating the differences between them are necessarily influenced by the translaters themselves.

Passage #2: (226-227)

The positive loop runs all the more rapidly, if the same Brahe is able to gather in the same place not only fresh observations made by him and his colleagues, but all the older books of astronomy that the printing press has made available at a low cost. His mind has not undergone a mutation; his eyes are not suddenly freed from old prejudices; he is not watching the summer sky more carefully than anyone before. But he is the first indeed to consider at a glance the summer sky, plus his observations, plus those of his collaborators, plus Copernicus’ books, plus many versions of Ptolemy’s Almagest; the first to sit at the beginning and at the end of a long network that generates what I will call immutable and combinable mobiles.

Question #2: (218)

In the case of the geographers and the Chinese fishermen, am I understanding the concept of asymmetry and symmetry properly by positing that when they first encounter one another, a situation of symmetry occurs (based on their matching unfamiliarity with one another) and on subsequent expeditions the situation between the groups is asymmetrical? Or is it asymmetrical when they first meet due to the fishermens’ greater knowledge of the land they live on, in comparison to Lap√©rouse and his complete lack of said knowledge?


Science in Action: Part II

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.

Question # 1:
“In the diffusion model, this (a Diesel rusting on a dock in an underdeveloped nation) would be accounted for in terms of the resistance, the passivity or the ignorance of the local culture. Society or ‘social factors’ would appear only at the end of the trajectory, when something went wrong. This has been called the principle of asymmetry: there is appeal to social factors only when the true path of reason has been ‘distorted’ but not when it goes straight.” (page 136)

How can you “ignore” that which is essential throughout the construction of a machine? If it wasn’t for the society of consumers, would there be a starting point for those who are constructing the machine?

Passage # 1:

(140-141) “Understanding what facts and machines are is the same task as understanding who the people are. If you describe the controlling elements that have been gathered together you will understand the groups which are controlled. Conversely, if you observe the new groups which are tied together, you will see how machines work and why facts are hard. The only question in common is to learn which associations are stronger and which weaker. We are never confronted with science, technology and society, but with a gamut of weaker and stronger associations; thus understanding what facts and machines are is the same task as understanding who the people are.”

Question # 2:
(page 141-142) “I presented our third rule of method: Nature cannot be used to account for the settlement of controversies, because it is only after the controversies have settled that we know what side she is on. Nature thus lies behind the facts once they are made; never behind facts in the making.”

What scientists are doing is discovering facts, discovering what Nature is. Nature accounts for the settlement of controversies. Facts do not take “sides”; they either are, or they aren’t. Nature has been explained, or it hasn’t, but it is certainly there all the time, unlike the artificial groups Latour describes. Do you agree with the above brief passage, or do you have an alternate explanation? The same is said of society, do you agree with these assessments that put nature and society into a definition-like box, where you can’t use the concept to account for the concept, much as you can’t use a word in its own definition?

Passage # 2:

(page 157) “The young kids’ interests, those of West, of De Castro and of the Data General Board of Directors were all aligned, at least for a few months. This alignment is precisely what is lacking in the two other examples. The Church, the universities, the gentry, the state, the public, the amateurs, the fellow geologists, all have mixed feelings about letting Lyell develop an independent geology; when Lyell talks about his interests, no one else at first feels that he means ‘their interests’ as well. Difficult negotiations are still going on to keep all these contradictory wills in line. In Joao’s case, it is clear that the interests are all at loggerheads. When he talks about his goals, no one else in the whole world thinks they are theirs as well: neither the military, nor industry, nor his colleagues. The relation between Joao and the others is so unambiguous that no community of interest is possible.”


Science in Action

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.

Passage 1:

“In my anatomy of scientific rhetoric I keep shifting from the isolated reader confronted by a technical document to the isolated author launching his document amidst a swarm of dissenting or indifferent readers. This is because the situation is symmetrical: if isolated, the author should find new resources to convince readers; if he or she succeeds then each reader is totally isolated by a scientific article that links itself to masses of new resources. In practice, there is only one reversible situation, which is just the opposite of that described by Galileo: how to be 2000 against one.” (page 50)


Almost as easily as Galileo proposed it, the isolated reader can look up the literature on the point and find support for his/her dissenting views. Do you feel that Latour is ignoring the phenomena of the paradigm shift in the scientific revolution as Thomas Kuhn describes it?

(Of course, later, Latour addresses this (page 94) by pointing out that Nature is at the disposal of the dissenter and, “[a]ny dissenter has got a chance”.)

Passage 2:

“If you dispute further and reach the frontier where facts are made, instruments become visible and with them the cost of continuing the discussion arises. It appears that arguing is costly.” (page 69)


My thoughts: this follows from the phenomena of education and resources being costly and leads to the discussion of the politics behind the funding of science and the issues surrounding science education. I see here the intersection of science and politics (and religion). Also, I see this as a question of value in our culture. Do you see the question and debate surrounding the allocation of resources for scientific research (and/or science education) as a question of value? The point of the scientific method is so the general public can “trust” (to a point), what scientists do, as we all don’t have the resources. This is also leads to the debate over where the money comes from. If “we” are the government, then that speaks to my point about being able to let the scientists go about their business and trust the peer review process. On the other hand, when science (especially the controversial sort) is funded by outside agencies, do more questions arise as to motivations, as opposed to government-funded operations, or less?