Laboratory Life, B. Latour & S. Woolgar (1979)

Let’s do one more post on the economics of science; if you haven’t heard of Latour and the book that made him famous, all I can say is that it is 30% completely crazy (the author is a French philosopher, after all!), 70% incredibly insightful, and overall a must read for anyone trying to understand how science proceeds or how scientists are motivated.

Latour is best known for two ideas: that facts are socially constructed (and hence science really isn’t that different from other human pursuits) and that objects/ideas/networks have agency. He rose to prominence with Laboratory Life, which followed two years observing a lab, that of future Nobel Winner Roger Guillemin at the Salk Institute at UCSD.

What he notes is that science is really strange if you observe it proceeding without any priors. Basically, a big group of people use a bunch of animals and chemicals and technical devices to produce beakers of fluids and points on curves and colored tabs. Somehow, after a great amount of informal discussion, all of these outputs are synthesized into a written article a few pages long. Perhaps, many years later, modalities about what had been written will be dropped; “X is a valid test for Y” rather than “W and Z (1967) claim that X is a valid test for Y” or even “It has been conjectured that X may be a valid test for Y”. Often, the printed literature will later change its mind; “X was once considered a valid test for Y, but that result is no longer considered convincing.”

Surely no one denies that the last paragraph accurately describes how science proceeds. But recall the schoolboy description, in which there are facts in the world, and then scientists do some work and run some tests, after which a fact has been “discovered”. Whoa! Look at all that is left out! How did we decide what to test, or what particulars constitute distinct things? How did we synthesize all of the experimental data into a few pages of formal writeup? Through what process did statements begin to be taken for granted, losing their modalities? If scientists actually discover facts, then how can a “fact” be overturned in the future? Latour argues, and gives tons of anecdotal evidence from his time at Salk, that providing answers to those questions basically constitutes the majority of what scientists actually do. That is, it is not that the fact is out there in nature waiting to be discovered, but that the fact is constructed by scientists over time.

That statement can be misconstrued, of course. That something is constructed does not mean that it isn’t real; the English language is both real and it is uncontroversial to point out that it is socially constructed. Latour and Woolgar: “To say that [a particular hormone] is constructed is not to deny its solidity as a fact. Rather, it is to emphasize how, where and why it was created.” Or later, “We do not wish to say that facts do not exist nor that there is no such thing as reality. In this simple sense we are not relativist. Our point is that ‘out-there-ness’ is the consequence of scientific work rather than its cause.” Putting their idea another way, the exact same object or evidence can at one point be considered up for debate or perhaps just a statistical artefact, yet later is considered a “settled fact” and yet later still will occasionally revert again. That is, the “realness” of the scientific evidence is not a property of the evidence itself, which does not change, but a property of the social process by which science reifies that evidence into an object of significance.

Latour and Woolgar also have an interesting discussion of why scientists care about credit. The story of credit as a reward, or credit-giving as some sort of gift exchange is hard to square with certain facts about why people do or do not cite. Rather, credit can be seen as a sort of capital. If you are credited with a certain breakthrough, you can use that capital to get a better position, more equipment and lab space, etc. Without further breakthroughs for which you are credited, you will eventually run out of such capital. This is an interesting way to think about why and when scientists care about who is credited with particular work.

Amazon link. This is a book without a nice summary article, I’m afraid, so you’ll have to stop by your library.

2 thoughts on “Laboratory Life, B. Latour & S. Woolgar (1979)

  1. enrique says:

    We are reblogging this review of Bruno Latour’s famous book about contemporary science mainly for the question posed in the next to last paragraph, namely, why do “scientists”–and scholars generally, we might add–care so much about priority and about getting “credit” for their work (e.g. citation counts, conference invites, etc.)? Is it simply about vanity, or is it about something else?

  2. enrique says:

    Reblogged this on prior probability and commented:
    We are reblogging this review of Bruno Latour’s classic book about science mainly for the question posed in the next to last paragraph of this post–namely, why do scientists (and scholars generally, we might add) care so much about priority and about getting credit for their work (e.g. citations, awards, etc.)? Is it simply another example of human vanity, or is it about something else?

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