next up previous
Next: Irigaray Up: Epistemic Relativism Previous: Sokal's Hoax


Bruno Latour is one of the most famous contemporary sociologists of science. In his book ``Science in Action", he describes several ``rules of method" which the sociologist of science should follow. Here is the third one:

Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome -- Nature -- to explain how and why a controversy has been settled'' (Latour (1987), Third Rule of Method, Science in Action, pp. 99 and 258).

Note, first, that Latour uses two completely different expressions, ``Nature'' and ``Nature's representation'', as if they were equivalent. Of course, he could claim that they are equivalent; he would then hold some rather radical form of idealism. That would at least be interesting, and debatable, but there is no indication that Latour espouses such views. So the sentence is profoundly ambiguous: we can understand it either by putting twice ``Nature's representation" or twice ``Nature". To see how they differ, consider, for example, the controversy, in the 19th century, between creationism and Darwinism. Under the first interpretation, the sentence is innocuous: obviously if a controversy is settled, e.g. in favour of Darwinism, our representation of nature changes. Under the second interpretation, the sentence is radical but obviously false: how can one reasonably explain the transition between belief in a literal reading of the Bible and the modern theory of evolution without ever invoking the fossil record and other aspects of ``Nature"?

Latour presents himself often as a philosopher and this is one of his six rules of method. It is difficult to believe that this is just a very careless way to write. Rather, such ambiguous sentences offer a great advantage in debates. The radical interpretation can be used to attract the attention of inexperienced readers. And the innocuous one can be used as a position of retreat if the patent falsehood of the radical interpretation is exposed (``but I never said that ...'').

There are other problems in Latour's writings. Let me quote Sokal's remarks on Latour's analysis of relativity:

take a look at Bruno Latour's semiotic analysis of the theory of relativity, published in Social Studies in Science, in which `` Einstein's text is read as a contribution to the sociology of delegation" (Latour, 1988). Why's that? Because Latour finds Einstein's popular books on relativity full of situations in which the author delegates one observer to stand on the platform and make certain measurements, and another observer to stand on the train and make certain measurements; and of course the results won't obey Lorentz tranformations unless the two observers do what they are told! You think I exaggerate? Latour emphasizes Einstein's

obsession with transporting information through transformation without deformation; his passion for the precise superimposition of readings; his panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges, and send reports that could not be used to expand our knowledge; his desire to discipline the delegated observers and to turn them into dependent pieces of apparatus that do nothing but watch the coincidence of hands and notches ... [Latour, 1988]

Furthermore, because Latour doesn't understand what the term ``frame of reference" means in physics -- he confuses it with ``actor" in semiotics -- he claims that relativity cannot deal with the transformation laws between two frames of reference, but needs at least three:

If there are only one, or even two frames of reference, no solution can be found ...Einstein's solution is to consider three actors: one in the train, one on the embankment and a third one, the author [enunciator] or one of his representants, who tries to superimpose the coded observations sent back by the two others. [Latour, 1988]

Finally, Latour somehow got the idea that relativity concerns the problems raised by the relative location (rather than the relative motion) of different observers. (Of course, even the word ``observer" here is potentially misleading; it belongs to the pedagogy of relativity, not to the theory itself.) Here is Latour's summary of the meaning of relativity:

provided the two relativities [special and general] are accepted, more frames of reference with less privilege can be accessed, reduced, accumulated and combined, observers can be delegated to a few more places in the infinitely large (the cosmos) and the infinitely small (electrons), and the readings they send will be understandable. His [Einstein's] book could well be titled: ``New Instructions for Bringing Back Long-Distance Scientific Travellers". [Latour, 1988]

Latour has thus produced 40 pages of comical misunderstndings of a theory that is nowadays routinely taught to intelligent college freshmen; and Social Studies in Science found it a whorthy scholarly contribution.[Sokal, 1996d]

next up previous
Next: Irigaray Up: Epistemic Relativism Previous: Sokal's Hoax

Kuroki Gen
Mon Aug 30 11:49:39 JST 1999