Saturday, May 25, 2019

Bruno Latour, Science and the Post-Truth Moment

5/25/2019—Leafing through old issues of the New York Review, you get a sense of the speed of cultural dissemination these days. One such cultural moment occurred last fall, when Bruno Latour’s new book, Down to Earth appeared. Ava Kofman did a long review/essay in The New York Times.

Latour is the prophet of the philosophy of science. He and other critics challenged the authority of science back in the 1980’s. I taught his book, We Have Never Been Modern, for years.

So, isn’t Latour responsible in part for the post-truth age that he new bitterly regrets? Does he confess—the same kind of confession that Camus engaged in and which I wrote about last week here?

Not at all. Instead, Latour seems to feel that the unreasonable claims of objective authority—the facts speak for themselves and differ from values—finally came crashing down. Not because of him but because that image of science is not true.

That is not how Latour puts it, but it is the case. Latour would say it is not convincing. But it is not convincing because it is not true. Truth—or rather falsehood—has consequences.

This is what is missing in Latour—the acknowledgment that it is not all up to humans. It is up to us to a great extent. But as one scientist said, sometimes nature kicks you in the ass. We can amend that to say that sometimes reality kicks you in the ass. And here was one such instance—science as purely objective was not true and no amount of convincing would hold it up forever.

I am now beginning to see Dr. King’s teaching in a new light. If your society is built on injustice, it will to that extent be weaker and less resilient than social structures that people agree are just. And, again, this is not because of how convincing we are, but that some structures actually are unjust. Eventually their injustice is seen, though it may take a long time.

Robert Taylor used to call this minimal realism. I don’t know if he would still assent, but I believe this is a fair statement of how things are.

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