· One (1) “Original Post” addressing one of the three question choices. Minimum of 250 words. Your Original Post must answer the question fully in all its parts and address possible objections to your reasoning. You must also connect your Original Post to the course by having at least one full sentence quote and citation from one of the Required Readings of the week. The quote should be word for word and contained inside quotation marks and then followed by an inline citation. Once you quote something or even reword something you did not originally write then you need to have it in a reference section at the end of the post (again in MLA format). Please refer to the following resources for help on MLA citation. 

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· MLA Citation:


· MLA Citation Examples:


· DISCUSSION QUESTION CHOICE #1: Value of Philosophy? Explore the question “What is the value of analytical philosophy in the 21st century?” using examples from what you have learned in the course, and what you have learned from the readings this week on Social Constructivism and “Laboratories”. Consider counterarguments.

· DISCUSSION QUESTION CHOICE #2:  Social Constructivism. Explore the implications of social constructivism in science. What does it mean to disagree with or question science because of social constructivism? Is this kind of dissent the role of analytical philosophy? Use what you have learned in the course, and what you have learned from the readings this week to argue your position. Consider counterarguments.

· DISCUSSION QUESTION CHOICE #3:  Scientific Dissent? Explore the implications of Bruno Latour’s scientific dissenter in “Laboratories.” What does it mean to disagree with or question science because of epistemological obstacles like those presented in Latour’s essay? Is this kind of dissent the role of analytical philosophy? Use what you have learned in the course, and what you have learned from the readings this week to argue your position. Consider counterarguments.

· Supplemental Online Readings

· (1) 

Mallon, Ron, “Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction.” 
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2019).

· Essay analyses the role of naturalism and social constructivism in philosophy.

· (2) Longino, Helen, “The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2019)

· A very useful article that outlines the issues of social constructivism in the philosophy of science.

· Supplemental Online Audio/Video

· (1) “Social constructionism | Society and Culture | MCAT | Khan Academy.” YouTube, uploaded by khanacademymedicine, Sep. 17, 2013. [2:45] 

· A short but informative video on the metaphysical implications of social constructivism

· (2) “Bruno Latour: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge – by Prof. Bruce Paternoster.” YouTube, uploaded by RowanCHSS, Oct. 11, 2016. [1:11:58] 

· An hour-long+ lecture on Bruno Latour and Social Constructivism by Dr. Bruce Paternoster of Rowan University. 


Bruno Latour


‘‘You doubt what I wrote? Let me show you.’’ The very rare and obstinate dissenter who has not
been convinced by the scientific text, and who has not found other ways to get rid of the author, is
led from the text into the place where the text is said to come from. I will call this place the labora-
tory, which for now simply means, as the name indicates, the place where scientists work. Indeed,
the laboratory was present in the texts we studied in the previous chapter: the articles were alluding
to ‘‘patients,’’ to ‘‘tumors’’ to ‘‘HPLC,’’ to ‘‘Russian spies,’’ to ‘‘engines’’; dates and times of exper-
iments were provided and the names of technicians acknowledged. All these allusions however
were made within a paper world; they were a set of semiotic actors presented in the text but not
present in the flesh; they were alluded to as if they existed independently from the text; they could
have been invented.

1) Inscriptions

What do we find when we pass through the looking glass and accompany our obstinate dissenter
from the text to the laboratory? Suppose that we read the following sentence in a scientific journal
and, for whatever reason, do not wish to believe it:

(1) ‘‘36.1 shows a typical pattern. Biological activity of endorphin was found essentially in two
zones with the activity of zone 2 being totally reversible, or statistically so, by naloxone.’’

We, the dissenters, question this figure 36.1 so much, and are so interested in it, that we go to the
author’s laboratory (I will call him ‘‘the Professor’’). We are led into an air-conditioned, brightly
lit room. The Professor is sitting in front of an array of devices that does not attract our attention
at first. ‘You doubt what I wrote? Let me show you.’ This last sentence refers to an image slowly
produced by one of these devices (figure 36.1):

We now understand that what the Professor is asking us to watch is related to the figure in
the text of sentence (1). We thus realise where this figure comes from. It has been extracted from
the instruments in this room, cleaned, redrawn, and displayed. We also realise, however, that the

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers
through Society by Bruno Latour, pp. 64–74, 91–100, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Copyright
� 1987 by Bruno Latour.

































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Laboratories 535

images that were the last layer in the text, are the end result of a long process in the laboratory that
we are now starting to observe. Watching the graph paper slowly emerging out of the physiograph,
we understand that we are at the junction of two worlds: a paper world that we have just left, and
one of instruments that we are just entering. A hybrid is produced at the interface: a raw image, to
be used later in an article, that is emerging from an instrument.

Figure 36.1

‘‘Ok. This is the base line; now, I am going to inject endorphin, what is going to happen? See?!’’ (figure 36.2)

Figure 36.2

‘‘Immediately the line drops dramatically. And now watch naloxone. See?! Back to base line levels. It is fully

For a time we focus on the stylus pulsating regularly, inking the paper, scribbling cryptic
notes. We remain fascinated by this fragile film that is in between text and laboratory. Soon, the
Professor draws our attention beneath and beyond the traces on the paper, to the physiograph from
which the image is slowly being emitted. Beyond the stylus a massive piece of electronic hardware
records, calibrates, amplifies and regulates signals coming from another instrument, an array of
glassware. The Professor points to a glass chamber in which bubbles are regularly flowing around
a tiny piece of something that looks like elastic. It is indeed elastic, the Professor intones. It is a
piece of gut, guinea pig gut (‘‘myenteric plexus-longitudinal muscle of the guinea pig ileum,’’ are
his words). This gut has the property of contracting regularly if maintained alive. This regular pul-
sation is easily disturbed by many chemicals. If one hooks the gut up so that each contraction sends
out an electric pulse, and if the pulse is made to move a stylus over graph paper, then the guinea
pig gut will be induced to produce regular scribbles over a long period. If you then add a chemical
to the chamber you see the peaks drawn by the inked stylus slow down or accelerate at the other
end. This perturbation, invisible in the chamber, is visible on paper: the chemical, no matter what

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536 Bruno Latour

it is, is given a shape on paper. This shape ‘‘tells you something’’ about the chemical. With this
set-up you may now ask new questions: if I double the dose of chemical will the peaks be doubly
decreased? And if I triple it, what will happen? I can now measure the white surface left by the
decreasing scribbles directly on the graph paper, thereby defining a quantitative relation between
the dose and the response. What if, just after the first chemical is added, I add another one which
is known to counteract it? Will the peaks go back to normal? How fast will they do so? What will
be the pattern of this return to the base line level? If two chemicals, one known, the other unknown,
trace the same slope on the paper, may I say, in this respect at least, that they are the same chemi-
cals? These are some of the questions the Professor is tackling with endorphin (unknown), mor-
phine (well known) and naloxone (known to be an antagonist of morphine).

We are no longer asked to believe the text that we read in Nature; we are now asked to believe
our own eyes, which can see that endorphin is behaving exactly like morphine. The object we
looked at in the text and the one we are now contemplating are identical except for one thing. The
graph of sentence (1), which was the most concrete and visual element of the text, is now in (2)
the most abstract and textual element in a bewildering array of equipment. Do we see more or less
than before? On the one hand we can see more, since we are looking at not only the graph but also
the physiograph, and the electronic hardware, and the glassware, and the electrodes, and the bubbles
of oxygen, and the pulsating ileum, and the Professor who is injecting chemicals into the chamber
with his syringe, and is writing down in a huge protocol book the time, amount of and reactions to
the doses. We can see more, since we have before our eyes not only the image but what the image
is made of.

On the other hand we see less because now each of the elements that makes up the final graph
could be modified so as to produce a different visual outcome. Any number of incidents could blur
the tiny peaks and turn the regular writing into a meaningless doodle. Just at the time when we feel
comforted in our belief and start to be fully convinced by our own eyes watching the image, we
suddenly feel uneasy because of the fragility of the whole set up. The Professor, for instance, is
swearing at the gut saying it is a ‘‘bad gut.’’ The technician who sacrificed the guinea pig is held
responsible and the Professor decides to make a fresh start with a new animal. The demonstration
is stopped and a new scene is set up. A guinea pig is placed on a table, under surgical floodlights,
then anaesthetised, crucified and sliced open. The gut is located, a tiny section is extracted, useless
tissue peeled away, and the precious fragment is delicately hooked up between two electrodes and
immersed in a nutrient fluid so as to be maintained alive. Suddenly, we are much further from the
paper world of the article. We are now in a puddle of blood and viscera, slightly nauseated by the
extraction of the ileum from this little furry creature. We realize that many other manual abilities
are required in order to write a convincing paper later on. The guinea pig alone would not have
been able to tell us anything about the similarity of endorphin to morphine; it was not mobilizable
into a text and would not help to convince us. Only a part of its gut, tied up in the glass chamber
and hooked up to a physiograph, can be mobilized in the text and add to our conviction. Thus, the
Professor’s art of convincing his readers must extend beyond the paper to preparing the ileum, to
calibrating the peaks, to tuning the physiograph.

After hours of waiting for the experiment to resume, for new guinea pigs to become available,
for new endorphin samples to be purified, we realise that the invitation of the author (‘‘let me show
you’’) is not as simple as we thought. It is a slow, protracted and complicated staging of tiny images
in front of an audience. ‘‘Showing’’ and ‘‘seeing’’ are not simple flashes of intuition. Once in the
lab we are not presented outright with the real endorphin whose existence we doubted. We are
presented with another world in which it is necessary to prepare, focus, fix and rehearse the vision
of the real endorphin. We came to the laboratory in order to settle our doubts about the paper, but
we have been led into a labyrinth.

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Laboratories 537

This unexpected unfolding makes us shiver because it now dawns on us that if we disbelieve
the traces obtained on the physiograph by the Professor, we will have to give up the topic altogether
or go through the same experimental chores all over again. The stakes have increased enormously
since we first started reading scientific articles. It is not a question of reading and writing back to
the author any more. In order to argue, we would now need the manual skills required to handle
the scalpels, peel away the guinea pig ileum, interpret the decreasing peaks, and so on. Keeping the
controversy alive has already forced us through many difficult moments. We now realize that what
we went through is nothing compared to the scale of what we have to undergo if we wish to con-
tinue. Earlier, we only needed a good library in order to dispute texts. It might have been costly
and not that easy, but it was still feasible. At this present point, in order to go on, we need guinea
pigs, surgical lamps and tables, physiographs, electronic hardware, technicians and morphine, not
to mention the scarce flasks of purified endorphin; we also need the skills to use all these elements
and to turn them into a pertinent objection to the Professor’s claim. As will be made clear later,
longer and longer detours will be necessary to find a laboratory, buy the equipment, hire the techni-
cians and become acquainted with the ileum assay. All this work just to start making a convincing
counterargument to the Professor’s original paper on endorphin. (And when we have made this
detour and finally come up with a credible objection, where will the Professor be?)

When we doubt a scientific text we do not go from the world of literature to Nature as it is.
Nature is not directly beneath the scientific article; it is there indirectly at best. Going from the
paper to the laboratory is going from an array of rhetorical resources to a set of new resources
devised in such a way as to provide the literature with its most powerful tool: the visual display.
Moving from papers to labs is moving from literature to convoluted ways of getting this literature
(or the most significant part of it).

This move through the looking glass of the paper allows me to define an instrument, a defi-
nition which will give us our bearings when entering any laboratory. I will call an instrument (or
inscription device) any set-up, no matter what its size, nature and cost, that provides a visual dis-
play of any sort in a scientific text. This definition is simple enough to let us follow scientists’
moves. For instance an optical telescope is an instrument, but so is an array of several radio-tele-
scopes even if its constituents are separated by thousands of kilometers. The guinea pig ileum assay
is an instrument even if it is small and cheap compared to an array of radiotelescopes or the Stan-
ford linear accelerator. The definition is not provided by the cost nor by the sophistication but only
by this characteristic: the set-up provides an inscription that is used as the final layer in a scientific
text. An instrument, in this definition, is not every set-up which ends with a little window that
allows someone to take a reading. A thermometer, a watch, a Geiger counter, all provide readings
but are not considered as instruments as long as these readings are not used as the final layer of
technical papers. This point is important when watching complicated contrivances with hundreds
of intermediary readings taken by dozens of white-coated technicians. What will be used as visual
proof in the article will be the few lines in the bubble chamber and not the piles of printout making
the intermediate readings.

It is important to note that the use of this definition of instrument is a relative one. It depends
on time. Thermometers were instruments and very important ones in the eighteenth century, so
were Geiger counters between the First and Second World Wars. These devices provided crucial
resources in papers of the time. But now they are only parts of larger set-ups and are only used so
that a new visual proof can be displayed at the end. Since the definition is relative to the use made
of the ‘‘window’’ in a technical paper, it is also relative to the intensity and nature of the associated
controversy. For instance, in the guinea pig ileum assay there is a box of electronic hardware with
many readings that I will call ‘‘intermediate’’ because they do not constitute the visual display
eventually put to use in the article. It is unlikely that anyone will quibble about this because the

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538 Bruno Latour

calibration of electronic signals is now made through a black box produced industrially and sold
by the thousand. It is a different matter with the huge tank built in an old gold mine in South Dakota
at a cost of $600,000 (1964 dollars!) by Raymond Davis to detect solar neutrinos. In a sense the
whole set-up may be considered as one instrument providing one final window in which astrophysi-
cists can read the number of neutrinos emitted by the sun. In this case all the other readings are
intermediate ones. If the controversy is fiercer, however, the set-up is broken down into several
instruments, each providing a specific visual display which has to be independently evaluated. If
the controversy heats up a bit we do not see neutrinos coming out of the sun. We see and hear a
Geiger counter that clicks when Argon decays. In this case the Geiger counter, which gave only an
intermediate reading when there was no dispute, becomes an instrument in its own right when the
dispute is raging.

The definition I use has another advantage. It does not make presuppositions about what the
instrument is made of. It can be a piece of hardware like a telescope, but it can also be made of
softer material. A statistical institution that employs hundreds of pollsters, sociologists and com-
puter scientists gathering all sorts of data on the economy is an instrument if it yields inscriptions
for papers written in economic journals with, for instance, a graph of the inflation rate by month
and by branch of industry. No matter how many people were made to participate in the construction
of the image, no matter how long it took, no matter how much it cost, the whole institution is
used as one instrument (as long as there is no controversy that calls its intermediate readings into

At the other end of the scale, a young primatologist who is watching baboons in the savannah
and is equipped only with binoculars, a pencil and a sheet of white paper may be seen as an instru-
ment if her coding of baboon behavior is summed up in a graph. If you want to deny her statements,
you might (everything else being equal) have to go through the same ordeals and walk through the
savannah taking notes with similar constraints. It is the same if you wish to deny the inflation rate
by month and industry, or the detection of endorphin with the ileum assay. The instrument, what-
ever its nature, is what leads you from the paper to what supports the paper, from the many
resources mobilized in the text to the many more resources mobilised to create the visual displays
of the texts. With this definition of an instrument, we are able to ask many questions and to make
comparisons: how expensive they are, how old they are, how many intermediate readings compose
one instrument, how long it takes to get one reading, how many people are mobilised to activate
them, how many authors are using the inscriptions they provide in their papers, how controversial
are those readings. . . . Using this notion we can define more precisely than earlier the laboratory
as any place that gathers one or several instruments together.

What is behind a scientific text? Inscriptions. How are these inscriptions obtained? By setting
up instruments. This other world just beneath the text is invisible as long as there is no controversy.
A picture of moon valleys and mountains is presented to us as if we could see them directly. The
telescope that makes them visible is invisible and so are the fierce controversies that Galileo had
to wage centuries ago to produce an image of the Moon. Once that fact is constructed, there is no
instrument to take into account and this is why the painstaking work necessary to tune the instru-
ments often disappears from popular science. On the contrary, when science in action is followed,
instruments become the crucial elements, immediately after the technical texts; they are where the
dissenter is inevitably led.

There is a corollary to this change of relevance on the inscription devices depending on the
strength of the controversy, a corollary that will become more important in the next chapter. If you
consider only fully-fledged facts it seems that everyone could accept or contest them equally. It
does not cost anything to contradict or accept them. If you dispute further and reach the frontier
where facts are made, instruments become visible and with them the cost of continuing the discus-

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Laboratories 539

sion rises. It appears that arguing is costly. The equal world of citizens having opinions about things
becomes an unequal world in which dissent or consent is not possible without a huge accumulation
of resources which permits the collection of relevant inscriptions. What makes the differences
between author and reader is not only the ability to utilize all the rhetorical resources studied ear-
lier, but also to gather the many devices, people and animals necessary to produce a visual display
usable in a text.

2) Spokesmen and Women

It is important to scrutinise the exact settings in which encounters between authors and dissenters
take place. When we disbelieve the scientific literature, we are led from the many libraries around
to the very few places where this literature is produced. Here we are welcomed by the author who
shows us where the figure in the text comes from. Once presented with the instruments, who does
the talking during these visits? At first, the authors: they tell the visitor what to see: ‘‘See the endor-
phin effect?’’ ‘‘Look at the neutrinos!’’ However, the authors are not lecturing the visitor. The visi-
tors have their faces turned towards the instrument and are watching the place where the thing is
writing itself down (inscription in the form of collection of specimens, graphs, photographs,
maps—you name it). When the dissenter was reading the scientific text it was difficult for him or
her to doubt, but with imagination, shrewdness and downright awkwardness it was always possible.
Once in the lab, it is much more difficult because the dissenters see with their own eyes. If we leave
aside the many other ways to avoid going through the laboratory that we will study later, the dis-
senter does not have to believe the paper nor even the scientist’s word since in a self-effacing ges-
ture the author has stepped aside. ‘‘See for yourself’’ the scientist says with a subdued and maybe
ironic smile. ‘‘Are you convinced now?’’ Faced with the thing itself that the technical paper was
alluding to, the dissenters now have a choice between either accepting the fact or doubting their
own sanity—the latter is much more painful.

We now seem to have reached the end of all possible controversies since there is nothing left
for the dissenter to dispute. He or she is right in front of the thing he or she is asked to believe.
There is almost no human intermediary between thing and person; the dissenter is in the very place
where the thing is said to happen and at the very moment when it happens. When such a point is
reached it seems that there is no further need to talk of ‘‘confidence’’: the thing impresses itself
directly on us. Undoubtedly, controversies are settled once and for all when such a situation is set
up—which again is very rarely the case. The dissenter becomes a believer, goes out of the lab,
borrowing the author’s claim and confessing that ‘‘X has incontrovertibly shown that A is B.’’ A
new fact has been made which will be used to modify the outcome of some other controversies.

If this were enough to settle the debate, it would be the end of this chapter. But . . . there is
someone saying ‘‘but, wait a minute . . .’’ and the controversy resumes!

What was imprinted on us when we were watching the guinea pig ileum assay? ‘‘Endorphin
of course,’’ the Professor said. But what did we see? This:

With a minimum of training we see peaks; we gather there is a base line, and we see a depres-
sion in relation to one coordinate that we understand to indicate the time. This is not endorphin yet.
The same thing occurred when we paid a visit to Davis’s gold and neutrino mine in South Dakota.
We saw, he said, neutrinos counted straight out of the huge tank capturing them from the sun. But
what did we see? Splurges on paper representing clicks from a Geiger counter. Not neutrinos, yet.

When we are confronted with the instrument, we are attending an ‘‘audio-visual’’ spectacle.
There is a visual set of inscriptions produced by the instrument and a verbal commentary uttered
by the scientist. We get both together. The effect on conviction is striking, but its cause is mixed
because we cannot differentiate what is coming from the thing inscribed, and what is coming from

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540 Bruno Latour

Figure 36.3

the author. To be sure, the scientist is not trying to influence us. He or she is simply commenting,
underlining, pointing out, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, not adding anything. But it is also
certain that the graphs and the clicks by themselves would not have been enough to form the image
of endorphin coming out of the brain or neutrinos coming out of the sun. Is this not a strange
situation? The scientists do not say anything more than what is inscribed, but without their com-
mentaries the inscriptions say considerably less! There is a word to describe this strange situation,
a very important word for everything that follows, that is the word spokesman (or spokeswoman,
or spokesperson, or mouthpiece). The author behaves as if he or she were the mouthpiece of what
is inscribed on the window of the instrument.

The spokesperson is someone who speaks for others who, or which, do not speak. For
instance a shop steward is a spokesman. If the workers were gathered together and they all spoke
at the same time there would be a jarring cacophony. No more meaning could be retrieved from
the tumult than if they had remained silent. This is why they designate (or are given) a delegate
who speaks on their behalf, and in their name. The delegate—let us call him Bill—does not speak
in his name and when confronted with the manager does not speak ‘‘as Bill’’ but as the ‘‘workers’
voice.’’ So Bill’s longing for a new Japanese car or his note to get a pizza for his old mother on his
way home are not the right topics for the meeting. The voice of the floor, articulated by Bill, wants
a ‘‘3 percent pay raise—and they are deadly serious about it, sir, they are ready to strike for it,’’ he
tells the manager. The manager has his doubts: ‘‘Is this really what they want? Are they really so
adamant?’’ ‘‘If you do not believe me,’’ replies Bill, ‘‘I’ll show you, but don’t ask for a quick
settlement. I told you they are ready to strike and you will see more than you want!’’ What does
the manager see? He does not see what Bill said. Through the office window he simply sees an
assembled crowd gathered in the aisles. Maybe it is because of Bill’s interpretation that he reads
anger and determination on their faces.

For everything that follows, it is very important not to limit this notion of spokesperson and
not to impose any clear distinction between ‘‘things’’ and ‘‘people’’ in advance. Bill, for instance,
represents people who could talk, but who, in fact, cannot all talk at once. Davis represents neutri-
nos that cannot talk, in principle, but which are made to write, scribble and sign thanks to the
device set up by Davis. So in practice, there is not much difference between people and things:
they both need someone to talk for them. From the spokesperson’s point of view there is thus
no distinction to be made between representing people and representing things. In each case the

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Laboratories 541

spokesperson literally does the talking for who or what cannot talk. The Professor in the laboratory
speaks for endorphin like Davis for the neutrinos and Bill for the shopfloor. In our definition the
crucial element is not the quality of the represented but only their number and the unity of the
representative. The point is that confronting a spokesperson is not like confronting any average
man or woman. You are confronted not with Bill or the Professor, but with Bill and the Professor
plus the many things or people on behalf of whom they are talking. You do not address Mr. Any-
body or Mr. Nobody but Mr. or Messrs. Manybodies. As we saw, it may be easy to doubt one
person’s word. Doubting a spokesperson’s word requires a much more strenuous effort however
because it is now one person—the dissenter—against a crowd—the author.

On the other hand, the strength of a spokesperson is not so great since he or she is by defini-
tion one man or woman whose word could be dismissed—one Bill, one Professor, one Davis. The
strength comes from the representatives’ word when they do not talk by and for themselves but in
the presence of what they represent. Then, and only then, the dissenter is confronted simultaneously
with the spokespersons and what they speak for: the Professor and the endorphin made visible in
the guinea pig assay; Bill and the assembled workers; Davis and his solar neutrinos. The solidity
of what the representative says is directly supported by the silent but eloquent presence of the
represented. The result of such a set-up is that it seems as though the mouthpiece does not ‘‘really
talk,’’ but that he or she is just commenting on what you yourself directly see, ‘‘simply’’ providing
you with the words you would have used anyway.

This situation, however, is the source of a major weakness. Who is speaking? The things or
the people through the representative’s voice? What does she (or he, or they, or it) say? Only what
the things they represent would say if they could talk directly. But the point is that they cannot. So
what the dissenter sees is, in practice, rather different from what the speaker says. Bill, for instance,
says his workers want to strike, but this might be Bill’s own desire or a union decision relayed by
him. The manager looking through the window may see a crowd of assembled workers who are
just passing the time and can be dispersed at the smallest threat. At any rate do they really want 3
percent and not 4 percent or 2 percent? And even so, is it not possible to offer Bill this Japanese
car he so dearly wants? Is the ‘‘voice of the worker’’ not going to change his/its mind if the manager
offers a new car to Bill? Take endorphin as another instance. What we really saw was a tiny depres-
sion in the regular spikes forming the base line. Is this the same as the one triggered by morphine?
Yes it is, but what does that prove? It may be that all sorts of chemicals give the same shape in this
peculiar assay. Or maybe the Professor so dearly wishes his substance to be morphine-like that he
unwittingly confused two syringes and injected the same morphine twice, thus producing two
shapes that indeed look identical.

What is happening? The controversy flares even after the spokesperson has spoken and dis-
played to the dissenter what he or she was talking about. How can the debate be stopped from
proliferating again in all directions? How can all the strength that a spokesman musters be
retrieved? The answer is easy: by letting the things and persons represented say for themselves the
same thing that the representatives claimed they wanted to say. Of course, this never happens since
they are designated because, by definition, such direct communication is impossible. Such a situa-
tion however may be convincingly staged.

Bill is not believed by the manager, so he leaves the office, climbs onto a podium, seizes a
loudspeaker and asks the crowd, ‘‘Do you want the 3 percent raise?’’ A roaring ‘‘Yes, our 3 percent!
Our 3 percent!’’ deafens the manager’s ears even through the window pane of his office. ‘‘Hear
them?’’ asks Bill with a modest but triumphant tone when they are sitting down again at the negoti-
ating table. Since the workers themselves said exactly what the ‘‘workers’ voice’’ had said, the
manager cannot dissociate Bill from those he represents and is really confronted with a crowd
acting as one single man.

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542 Bruno Latour

The same is true for the endorphin assay when the dissenter, losing his temper, accuses the
Professor of fabricating facts. ‘‘Do it yourself,’’ the Professor says, irritated but eager to play fair.
‘‘Take the syringe and see for yourself what the assay reaction will be.’’ The visitor accepts the
challenge, carefully checks the labels on the two vials and first injects morphine into the tiny glass
chamber. Sure enough, a few seconds later the spikes start decreasing and after a minute or so they
return to the base line. With the vial labelled endorphin, the very same result is achieved with the
same timing. A unanimous, incontrovertible answer is thus obtained by the dissenter himself. What
the Professor said the endorphin assay will answer, if asked directly, is answered by the assay. The
Professor cannot be dissociated from his claims. So the visitor has to go back to the ‘‘negotiating
table’’ confronted not with the Professor’s own wishes but with a professor simply transmitting
what endorphin really is.

No matter how many resources the scientific paper might mobilise, they carry little weight
compared with this rare demonstration of power: the author of the claim steps aside and the doubter
sees, hears and touches the inscribed things or the assembled people that reveal to him or to her
exactly the same claim as the author.

3) Trials of Strength

For us who are simply following scientists at work there is no exit from such a setup, no back door
through which to escape the incontrovertible evidence. We have already exhausted all sources of
dissent; indeed we might have no energy left to maintain the mere idea that controversy might still
be open. For us laymen, the file is now closed. Surely, the dissenter we have shadowed will give
up. If the things say the same as the scientist, who can deny the claim any longer? How can you
go any further?

The dissenter goes on, however, with more tenacity than the laymen. The identical tenor of
the representative’s words and the answers provided by the represented were the result of a care-
fully staged situation. The instruments needed to be working and finely tuned, the questions to be
asked at the right time and in the right format. What would happen, asks the dissenter, if we stayed
longer than the show and went backstage; or were to alter any of the many elements which, every-
one agrees, are necessary to make up the whole instrument? The unanimity between represented
and constituency is like what an inspector sees of a hospital or of a prison camp when his inspection
is announced in advance. What if he steps outside his itinerary and tests the solid ties that link the
represented and their spokesmen?

The manager, for instance, heard the roaring applause that Bill received, but he later obtains
the foremen’s opinion: ‘‘The men are not for the strike at all, they would settle for 2 percent. It is
a union order; they applauded Bill because that’s the way to behave on the shopfloor, but distribute
a few pay raises and lay off a few ringleaders and they will sing an altogether different song.’’ In
place of the unanimous answer given by the assembled workers, the manager is now faced with an
aggregate of possible answers. He is now aware that the answer he got earlier through Bill was
extracted from a complex setting which was at first invisible. He also realises that there is room for
action and that each worker may be made to behave differently if pressures other than Bill’s are
exerted on them. The next time Bill screams ‘‘You want the 3 percent, don’t you?’’ only a few half-
hearted calls of agreement will interrupt a deafening silence.

Let us take another example, this time from the history of science. At the turn of the century,
Blondlot, a physicist from Nancy, in France, made a major discovery like that of X-rays. Out of
devotion to his city he called them ‘‘N-rays.’’ For a few years, N-rays had all sorts of theoretical
developments and many practical applications, curing diseases and putting Nancy on the map of
international science. A dissenter from the United States, Robert W. Wood, did not believe Blond-

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lot’s papers even though they were published in reputable journals, and decided to visit the labora-
tory. For a time Wood was confronted with incontrovertible evidence in the laboratory at Nancy.
Blondlot stepped aside and let the N-rays inscribe themselves straight onto a screen in front of
Wood. This, however, was not enough to get rid of Wood, who obstinately stayed in the lab asking
for more experiments and himself manipulating the N-ray detector. At one point he even surrepti-
tiously removed the aluminium prism which was generating the N-rays. To his surprise, Blondlot
on the other side of the dimly lit room kept obtaining the same result on his screen even though
what was deemed the most crucial element had been removed. The direct signatures made by the
N-rays on the screen were thus made by something else. The unanimous support became a cacoph-
ony of dissent. By removing the prism, Wood severed the solid links that attached Blondlot to the
N-rays. Wood’s interpretation was that Blondlot so much wished to discover rays (at a time when
almost every lab in Europe was christening new rays) that he unwittingly made up not only the N-
rays, but also the instrument to inscribe them. Like the manager above, Wood realised that the
coherent whole he was presented with was an aggregate of many elements that could be induced
to go in many different directions. After Wood’s action (and that of other dissenters) no one ‘‘saw’’
N-rays any more but only smudges on photographic plates when Blondlot presented his N-rays.
Instead of enquiring about the place of N-rays in physics, people started enquiring about the role
of auto-suggestion in experimentation! The new fact had been turned into an artifact.

The way out, for the dissenter, is not only to dissociate and disaggregate the many supporters
the technical papers were able to muster. It is also to shake up the complicated set-up that provides
graphs and traces in the author’s laboratory in order to see how resistant the array is which has
been mobilised in order to convince everyone. The work of disbelieving the literature has now been
turned into the difficult job of manipulating the hardware. We have now reached another stage in
the escalation between the author of a claim and the disbeliever, one that leads them further and
further into the details of what makes up the inscriptions used in technical literature.

Let us continue the question-and-answer session staged above between the Professor and the
dissenter. The visitor was asked to inject morphine and endorphin himself in order to check that
there was no foul play. But the visitor is arguments, we have analysed so far. What was the endor-
phin tried out by the dissenter? The superimposition of the traces obtained by: a sacrificed guinea
pig whose gut was then hooked up to electric wires and regularly stimulated; a hypothalamus soup
extracted after many trials from slaughtered sheep and then forced through HPLC columns under
a very high pressure.

Endorphin, before being named and for as long as it is a new object, is this list readable on
the instruments in the Professor’s laboratory. So is a microbe long before being called such. At
first it is something that transforms sugar into alcohol in Pasteur’s lab. This something is narrowed
down by the multiplication of feats it is asked to do. Fermentation still occurs in the absence of air
but stops when air is reintroduced. This exploit defines a new hero that is killed by air but breaks
down sugar in its absence, a hero that will be called ‘‘Anaerobic’’ or ‘‘Survivor in the Absence of
Air.’’ Laboratories generate so many new objects because they are able to create extreme conditions
and because each of these actions is obsessively inscribed.

This naming after what the new object does is in no way limited to actants like hormones or
radioactive substances, that is to the laboratories of what are often called ‘experimental sciences’.
Mathematics also defines its subjects by what they do. When Cantor, the German mathematician,
gave a shape to his transfinite numbers, the shape of his new objects was obtained by having them
undergo the simplest and most radical trial: is it possible to establish a one-to-one connection
between, for instance, the set of points comprising a unit square and the set of real numbers between
0 and 1? It seems absurd at first since it would mean that there are as many numbers on one side
of a square as in the whole square. The trial is devised so as to see if two different numbers in the

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544 Bruno Latour

square have different images on the side or not (thus forming a one-to-one correspondence) or if
they have only one image (thus forming a two-to-one correspondence). The written answer on the
white sheet of paper is incredible: ‘‘I see it but I don’t believe it,’’ wrote Cantor to Dedekind. There
are as many numbers on the side as in the square. Cantor creates his transfinites from their perfor-
mance in these extreme, scarcely conceivable conditions.

The act of defining a new object by the answers it inscribes on the window of an instrument
provides scientists and engineers with their final source of strength. It constitutes our second basic
principle,* as important as the first in order to understand science in the making: scientists and
engineers speak in the name of new allies that they have shaped and enrolled; representatives
among other representatives, they add these unexpected resources to tip the balance of force in
their favour. Guillemin now speaks for endorphin and somatostatin, Pasteur for visible microbes,
the Curies for polonium, Payen and Persoz for enzymes, Cantor for transfinites. When they are
challenged, they cannot be isolated, but on the contrary their constituency stands behind them
arrayed in tiers and ready to say the same thing.

4) Laboratories against Laboratories

Our good friend, the dissenter, has now come a long way. He or she is no longer the shy listener
to a technical lecture, the timid onlooker of a scientific experiment, the polite contradictor. He or
she is now the head of a powerful laboratory utilising all available instruments, forcing the phenom-
ena supporting the competitors to support him or her instead, and shaping all sorts of unexpected
objects by imposing harsher and longer trials. The power of this laboratory is measured by the
extreme conditions it is able to create: huge accelerators of millions of electron volts; temperatures
approaching absolute zero; arrays of radio-telescopes spanning kilometres; furnaces heating up to
thousands of degrees; pressures exerted at thousands of atmospheres; animal quarters with thou-
sands of rats or guinea pigs; gigantic number crunchers able to do thousands of operations per
millisecond. Each modification of these conditions allows the dissenter to mobilise one more
actant. A change from micro to phentogram, from million to billion electron volts; lenses going
from metres to tens of metres; tests going from hundreds to thousands of animals; and the shape of
a new actant is thus redefined. All else being equal, the power of the laboratory is thus proportion-
ate to the number of actants it can mobilise on its behalf. At this point, statements are not borrowed,
transformed or disputed by empty-handed laypeople, but by scientists with whole laboratories
behind them.

However, to gain the final edge on the opposing laboratory, the dissenter must carry out a
fourth strategy: he or she must be able to transform the new objects into, so to speak, older objects
and feed them back into his or her lab.

What makes a laboratory difficult to understand is not what is presently going on in it, but
what has been going on in it and in other labs. Especially difficult to grasp is the way in which
new objects are immediately transformed into something else. As long as somatostatin, polonium,
transfinite numbers, or anaerobic microbes are shaped by the list of trials I summarised above, it is
easy to relate to them: tell me what you go through and I will tell you what you are. This situation,
however, does not last. New objects become things: ‘‘somatostatin,’’ ‘‘polonium,’’ ‘‘anaerobic
microbes,’’ ‘‘transfinite numbers,’’ ‘‘double helix’’ or ‘‘Eagle computers,’’ things isolated from the
laboratory conditions that shaped them, things with a name that now seem independent from the
trials in which they proved their mettle. This process of transformation is a very common one and

*Editor’s note: Latour’s First Basic Principle states, ‘‘the fate of facts and machines is in the later user’s hands;
their qualities are thus a consequence, not a cause, of a collective action.’’

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Laboratories 545

occurs constantly both for laypeople and for the scientist. All biologists now take ‘‘protein’’ for an
object; they do not remember the time, in the 1920s, when protein was a whitish stuff that was
separated by a new ultracentrifuge in Svedberg’s laboratory. At the time protein was nothing but
the action of differentiating cell contents by a centrifuge. Routine use however transforms the nam-
ing of an actant after what it does into a common name. This process is not mysterious or special
to science. It is the same with the can opener we routinely use in our kitchen. We consider the
opener and the skill to handle it as one black box which means that it is unproblematic and does
not require planning and attention. We forget the many trials we had to go through (blood, scars,
spilled beans and ravioli, shouting parent) before we handled it properly, anticipating the weight of
the can, the reactions of the opener, the resistance of the tin. It is only when watching our own kids
still learning it the hard way that we might remember how it was when the can opener was a ‘‘new
object’’ for us, defined by a list of trials so long that it could delay dinner forever.

This process of routinisation is common enough. What is less common is the way the same
people who constantly generate new objects to win in a controversy are also constantly transform-
ing them into relatively older ones in order to win still faster and irreversibly. As soon as somato-
statin has taken shape, a new bioassay is devised in which sosmatostatin takes the role of a stable,
unproblematic substance in a trial set up for tracking down a new problematic substance, GRF. As
soon as Svedberg has defined protein, the ultracentrifuge is made a routine tool of the laboratory
bench and is employed to define the constituents of proteins. No sooner has polonium emerged
from what it did in the list of ordeals above than it is turned into one of the well-known radioactive
elements with which one can design an experiment to isolate a new radioactive substance further
down in Mendeleev’s table. The list of trials becomes a thing; it is literally reified.

This process of reification is visible when going from new objects to older ones, but it is also
reversible although less visible when going from younger to older ones. All the new objects we
analysed in the section above were framed and defined by stable black boxes which had earlier
been new objects before being similarly reified. Endorphin was made visible in part because the
ileum was known to go on pulsating long after guinea pigs are sacrificed: what was a new object
several decades earlier in physiology was one of the black boxes participating in the endorphin
assay, as was morphine itself. How could the new unknown substance have been compared if mor-
phine had not been known? Morphine, which had been a new object defined by its trials in Seguin’s
laboratory sometime in 1804, was used by Guillemin in conjunction with the guinea pig ileum to
set up the conditions defining endorphin. This also applies to the physiograph, invented by the
French physiologist Marey at the end of the nineteenth century. Without it, the transformation of
gut pulsation would not have been made graphically visible. Similarly for the electronic hardware
that enhanced the signals and made them strong enough to activate the physiograph stylus. Decades
of advanced electronics during which many new phenomena had been devised were mobilised here
by Guillemin to make up another part of the assay for endorphin. Any new object is thus shaped
by simultaneously importing many older ones in their reified form. Some of the imported objects
are from young or old disciplines or pertain to harder or softer ones. The point is that the new
object emerges from a complex set-up of sedimented elements each of which has been a new object
at some point in time and space. The genealogy and the archaeology of this sedimented past is
always possible in theory but becomes more and more difficult as time goes by and the number of
elements mustered increases.

It is just as difficult to go back to the time of their emergence as it is to contest them. The
reader will have certainly noticed that we have gone full circle from the first section of this part
(borrowing more black boxes) to this section (blackboxing more objects). It is indeed a circle with
a feedback mechanism that creates better and better laboratories by bringing in as many new
objects as possible in as reified a form as possible. If the dissenter quickly re-imports somatostatin,

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546 Bruno Latour

endorphin, polonium, transfinite numbers as so many incontrovertible black boxes, his or her oppo-
nent will be made all the weaker. His or her ability to dispute will be decreased since he or she will
now be faced with piles of black boxes, obliged to untie the links between more and more elements
coming from a more and more remote past, from harder disciplines, and presented in a more reified
form. Has the shift been noticed? It is now the author who is weaker and the dissenter stronger.
The author must now either build a better laboratory in order to dispute the dissenter’s claim and
tip the balance of power back again, or quit the game—or apply one of the many tactics to escape
the problem altogether that we will see in the second part of this book. The endless spiral has
traveled one more loop. Laboratories grow because of the number of elements fed back into them,
and this growth is irreversible since no dissenter/author is able to enter into the fray later with fewer
resources at his or her disposal—everything else being equal. Beginning with a few cheap elements
borrowed from common practice, laboratories end up after several cycles of contest with costly and
enormously complex set-ups very remote from common practice.

The difficulty of grasping what goes on inside their walls thus comes from the sediment of
what has been going on in other laboratories earlier in time and elsewhere in space. The trials
currently being undergone by the new object they give shape to are probably easy to explain to the
layperson—and we are all laypeople so far as disciplines other than our own are concerned—but
the older objects capitalised in the many instruments are not. The layman is awed by the laboratory
set-up, and rightly so. There are not many places under the sun where so many and such hard
resources are gathered in so great numbers, sedimented in so many layers, capitalised on such a
large scale. When confronted earlier by the technical literature we could brush it aside; confronted
by laboratories we are simply and literally impressed. We are left without power, that is, without
resource to contest, to reopen the black boxes, to generate new objects, to dispute the spokesmen’s

Laboratories are now powerful enough to define reality. To make sure that our travel through
technoscience is not stifled by complicated definitions of reality, we need a simple and sturdy one
able to withstand the journey: reality as the latin word res indicates, is what resists. What does it
resist? Trials of strength. If, in a given situation, no dissenter is able to modify the shape of a new
object, then that’s it, it is reality, at least for as long as the trials of strength are not modified. In
the examples above so many resources have been mobilised by the dissenters to support these
claims that, we must admit, resistance will be vain: the claim has to be true. The minute the contest
stops, the minute I write the word ‘‘true,’’ a new, formidable ally suddenly appears in the winner’s
camp, an ally invisible until then, but behaving now as if it had been there all along; Nature.


Some readers will think that it is about time I talked of Nature and the real objects behind the texts
and behind the labs. But it is not I who am late in finally talking about reality. Rather, it is Nature
who always arrives late, too late to explain the rhetoric of scientific texts and the building of labora-
tories. This belated, sometimes faithful and sometimes fickle ally has complicated the study of
technoscience until now so much that we need to understand it if we wish to continue our travel
through the construction of facts and artefacts.

1) ‘‘Natur mit uns’’

‘‘Belated?’’ ‘‘Fickle?’’ I can hear the scientists I have shadowed so far becoming incensed by what
I have just written. All this is ludicrous because the reading and the writing, the style and the black

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boxes, the laboratory set-ups—indeed all existing phenomena—are simply means to express some-
thing, vehicles for conveying this formidable ally. We might accept these ideas of ‘‘inscriptions,’’
your emphasis on controversies, and also perhaps the notions of ‘‘ally,’’ ‘‘new object,’’ ‘‘actant’’
and ‘‘supporter,’’ but you have omitted the only important one, the only supporter who really
counts, Nature herself. Her presence or absence explains it all. Whoever has Nature in their camp
wins, no matter what the odds against them are. Remember Galileo’s sentence, ‘‘1000 Demosthenes
and 1000 Aristotles may be routed by any average man who brings Nature in.’’ All the flowers of
rhetoric, all the clever contraptions set up in the laboratories you describe, all will be dismantled
once we go from controversies about Nature to what Nature is. The Goliath of rhetoric with his
laboratory set-up and all his attendant Philistines will be put to flight by one David alone using
simple truths about Nature in his slingshot! So let us forget all about what you have been writing
for a hundred pages—even if you claim to have been simply following us—and let us see Nature
face to face!

Is this not a refreshing objection? It means that Galileo was right after all. The dreadnoughts
I studied may be easily defeated in spite of the many associations they knit, weave and knot. Any
dissenter has got a chance. When faced with so much scientific literature and such huge labora-
tories, he or she has just to look at Nature in order to win. It means that there is a supplement,
something more which is nowhere in the scientific papers and nowhere in the labs which is able to
settle all matters of dispute. This objection is all the more refreshing since it is made by the scien-
tists themselves, although it is clear that this rehabilitation of the average woman or man, of Ms or
Mr Anybody, is also an indictment of these crowds of allies mustered by the same scientists.

Let us accept this pleasant objection and see how the appeal to Nature helps us to distinguish
between, for instance, Schally’s claim about GHRH and Guillemin’s claim about GRF. They both
wrote convincing papers, arraying many resources with talent. One is supported by Nature—so his
claim will be made a fact—and the other is not—it ensues that his claim will be turned into an
artefact by the others. According to the above objections, readers will find it easy to give the casting
vote. They simply have to see who has got Nature on his side.

It is just as easy to separate the future of fuel cells from that of batteries. They both contend
for a slice of the market; they both claim to be the best and most efficient. The potential buyer, the
investor, the analyst are lost in the midst of a controversy, reading stacks of specialised literature.
According to the above objection, their life will now be easier. Just watch to see on whose behalf
Nature will talk. It is as simple as in the struggles sung in the Iliad: wait for the goddess to tip the
balance in favour of one camp or the other.

A fierce controversy divides the astrophysicists who calculate the number of neutrinos com-
ing out of the sun and Davis, the experimentalist who obtains a much smaller figure. It is easy to
distinguish them and put the controversy to rest. Just let us see for ourselves in which camp the sun
is really to be found. Somewhere the natural sun with its true number of neutrinos will close the
mouths of dissenters and force them to accept the facts no matter how well written these papers

Another violent dispute divides those who believe dinosaurs to have been coldblooded (lazy,
heavy, stupid and sprawling creatures) and those who think that dinosaurs were warm-blooded
(swift, light, cunning and running animals). If we support the objection, there would be no need for
the ‘average man’ to read the piles of specialised articles that make up this debate. It is enough to
wait for Nature to sort them out. Nature would be like God, who in medieval times judged between
two disputants by letting the innocent win.

In these four cases of controversy generating more and more technical papers and bigger and
bigger laboratories or collections, Nature’s voice is enough to stop the noise. Then the obvious
question to ask, if I want to do justice to the objection above, is ‘‘what does Nature say?’’

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548 Bruno Latour

Schally knows the answer pretty well. He told us in his paper, GHRH is this amino-acid
sequence, not because he imagined it, or made it up, or confused a piece of haemoglobin for this
long-sought-after hormone, but because this is what the molecule is in Nature, independently of his
wishes. This is also what Guillemin says, not of Schally’s sequence, which is a mere artefact, but
of his substance, GRF. There is still doubt as to the exact nature of the real hypothalamic GRF
compared with that of the pancreas, but on the whole it is certain that GRF is indeed the amino-
acid sequence earlier. Now, we have got a problem. Both contenders have Nature in their camp and
say what it says. Hold it! The challengers are supposed to be refereed by Nature, and not to start
another dispute about what Nature’s voice really said.

We are not going to be able to stop this new dispute about the referee, however, since the
same confusion arises when fuel cells and batteries are opposed. ‘‘The technical difficulties are not
insurmountable,’’ say the fuel cell’s supporters. ‘‘It’s just that an infinitesimal amount has been
spent on their resolution compared to the internal combustion engine’s. Fuel cells are Nature’s way
of storing energy; give us more money and you’ll see.’’ Wait, wait! We were supposed to judge the
technical literature by taking another outsider’s point of view, not to be driven back inside the
literature and deeper into laboratories.

Yet it is not possible to wait outside, because in the third example also, more and more papers
are pouring in, disputing the model of the sun and modifying the number of neutrinos emitted. The
real sun is alternately on the side of the theoreticians when they accuse the experimentalists of
being mistaken and on the side of the latter when they accuse the former of having set up a fictional
model of the sun’s behaviour. This is too unfair. The real sun was asked to tell the two contenders
apart, not to become yet another bone of contention.

More bones are to be found in the paleontologists’ dispute where the real dinosaur has prob-
lems about giving the casting vote. No one knows for sure what it was. The ordeal might end, but
is the winner really innocent or simply stronger or luckier? Is the warm-blooded dinosaur more like
the real dinosaur, or is it just that its proponents are stronger than those of the cold-blooded one?
We expected a final answer by using Nature’s voice. What we got was a new fight over the composi-
tion, content, expression and meaning of that voice. That is, we get more technical literature and
larger collections in bigger Natural History Museums, not less; more debates and not less.

I interrupt the exercise here. It is clear by now that applying the scientists’ objection to any
controversy is like pouring oil on a fire, it makes it flare anew. Nature is not outside the fighting
camps. She is, much like God in not-so-ancient wars, asked to support all the enemies at once.
‘‘Natur mit uns’’ is embroidered on all the banners and is not sufficient to provide one camp with
the winning edge. So what is sufficient?

2) The Double-Talk of the Two-Faced Janus

I could be accused of having been a bit disingenuous when applying scientists’ objections. When
they said that something more than association and numbers is needed to settle a debate, something
outside all our human conflicts and interpretations, something they call ‘‘Nature’’ for want of a
better term, something that eventually will distinguish the winners and the losers, they did not mean
to say that we know what it is. This supplement beyond the literature and laboratory trials is
unknown and this is why they look for it, call themselves ‘‘researchers,’’ write so many papers and
mobilise so many instruments.

‘‘It is ludicrous,’’ I hear them arguing, ‘‘to imagine that Nature’s voice could stop Guillemin
and Schally from fighting, could reveal whether fuel cells are superior to batteries or whether Wat-
son and Crick’s model is better than that of Pauling. It is absurd to imagine that Nature, like a
goddess, will visibly tip the scale in favour of one camp or that the Sun God will barge into an

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astrophysics meeting to drive a wedge between theoreticians and experimentalists; and still more
ridiculous to imagine real dinosaurs invading a Natural History Museum in order to be compared
with their plaster models! What we meant, when contesting your obsession with rhetoric and mobi-
lisation of black boxes, was that once the controversy is settled, it is Nature the final ally that has
settled it and not any rhetorical tricks and tools or any laboratory contraptions.’’

If we still wish to follow scientists and engineers in their construction of technoscience, we
have got a major problem here. On the one hand scientists herald Nature as the only possible adjudi-
cator of a dispute, on the other they recruit countless allies while waiting for Nature to declare
herself. Sometimes David is able to defeat all the Philistines with only one slingshot; at other times,
it is better to have swords, chariots and many more, better-drilled soldiers than the Philistines!

It is crucial for us, laypeople who want to understand technoscience, to decide which version
is right, because in the first version, as Nature is enough to settle all disputes, we have nothing to
do since no matter how large the resources of the scientists are, they do not matter in the end—only
Nature matters. Our chapters may not be all wrong, but they become useless since they merely look
at trifles and addenda and it is certainly no use going on for four other chapters to find still more
trivia. In the second version, however, we have a lot of work to do since, by analyzing the allies
and resources that settle a controversy we understand everything that there is to understand in tech-
noscience. If the first version is correct, there is nothing for us to do apart from catching the most
superficial aspects of science; if the second version is maintained, there is everything to understand
except perhaps the most superfluous and flashy aspects of science. Given the stakes, the reader will
realise why this problem should be tackled with caution. The whole book is in jeopardy here. The
problem is made all the more tricky since scientists simultaneously assert the two contradictory
versions, displaying an ambivalence which could paralyse all our efforts to follow them.

We would indeed be paralyzed, like most of our predecessors, if we were not used to this
double-talk or the two-faced Janus. The two versions are contradictory but they are not uttered by
the same face of Janus. There is again a clear-cut distinction between what scientists say about the
cold settled part and about the warm unsettled part of the research front. As long as controversies
are rife, Nature is never used as the final arbiter since no one knows what she is and says. But once
the controversy is settled, Nature is the ultimate referee.

This sudden inversion of what counts as referee and what counts as being refereed, although
counter-intuitive at first, is as easy to grasp as the rapid passage from the ‘‘name of action’’ given
to a new object to when it is given its name as a thing (see above). As long as there is a debate
among endocrinologists about GRF or GHRH, no one can intervene in the debates by saying, ‘‘I
know what it is, Nature told me so. It is that amino-acid sequence.’’ Such a claim would be greeted
with derisive shouts, unless the proponent of such a sequence is able to show his figures, cite his
references, and quote his sources of support, in brief, write another scientific paper and equip a
new laboratory, as in the case we have studied. However, once the collective decision is taken to
turn Schally’s GHRH into an artefact and Guillemin’s GRF into an incontrovertible fact, the reason
for this decision is not imputed to Guillemin, but is immediately attributed to the independent exis-
tence of GRF in Nature. As long as the controversy lasted, no appeal to Nature could bring any
extra strength to one side in the debate (it was at best an invocation, at worst a bluff). As soon as
the debate is stopped, the supplement of force offered by Nature is made the explanation as to why
the debate did stop (and why the bluffs, the frauds and the mistakes were at last unmasked).

So we are confronted with two almost simultaneous suppositions:

Nature is the final cause of the settlement of all controversies, once controversies are settled.
As long as they last Nature will appear simply as the final consequence of the controversies.

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550 Bruno Latour

When you wish to attack a colleague’s claim, criticise a world-view, modalise a statement
you cannot just say that Nature is with you; ‘‘just’’ will never be enough. You are bound to use
other allies besides Nature. If you succeed, then Nature will be enough and all the other allies and
resources will be made redundant. A political analogy may be of some help at this point. Nature,
in scientists’ hands, is a constitutional monarch, much like Queen Elizabeth the Second. From the
throne she reads with the same tone, majesty and conviction a speech written by Conservative or
Labour prime ministers depending on the election outcome. Indeed she adds something to the dis-
pute, but only after the dispute has ended; as long as the election is going on she does nothing but

This sudden reversal of scientists’ relations to Nature and to one another is one of the most
puzzling phenomena we encounter when following their trails. I believe that it is the difficulty of
grasping this simple reversal that has made technoscience so hard to probe until now.

The two faces of Janus talking together make, we must admit, a startling spectacle. On the
left side Nature is cause, on the right side consequence of the end of controversy. On the left side
scientists are realists, that is they believe that representations are sorted out by what really is out-
side, by the only independent referee there is, Nature. On the right side, the same scientists are
relativists, that is, they believe representations to be sorted out among themselves and the actants
they represent, without independent and impartial referees lending their weight to any one of them.
We know why they talk two languages at once: the left mouth speaks about settled parts of science,
whereas the right mouth talks about unsettled parts. On the left side polonium was discovered long
ago by the Curies; on the right side there is a long list of actions effected by an unknown actant in
Paris at the Ecole de Chimie which the Curies propose to call ‘polonium’. On the left side all
scientists agree, and we hear only Nature’s voice, plain and clear; on the right side scientists dis-
agree and no voice can be heard over theirs.

Figure 36.4

3) The Third Rule of Method

If we wish to continue our journey through the construction of facts, we have to adapt our method
to scientists’ double-talk. If not, we will always be caught on the wrong foot: unable to withstand
either their first (realist) or their second (relativist) objection. We will then need to have two differ-
ent discourses depending on whether we consider a settled or an unsettled part of technoscience.
We too will be relativists in the latter case and realists in the former. When studying contro-
versy—as we have so far—we cannot be less relativist than the very scientists and engineers we
accompany; they do not use Nature as the external referee, and we have no reason to imagine that

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Laboratories 551

we are more clever than they are. For these parts of science our third rule of method will read:
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.

This principle is easy to apply as long as the dispute lasts, but is difficult to bear in mind
once it has ended, since the other face of Janus takes over and does the talking. This is what makes
the study of the past of technoscience so difficult and unrewarding. You have to hang onto the
words of the right face of Janus—now barely audible—and ignore the clamours of the left side. It
turned out for instance that the N-rays were slowly transformed into artifacts much like Schally’s
GHRH. How are we going to study this innocent expression ‘‘it turned out?’’

Using the physics of the present day there is unanimity that Blondlot was badly mistaken. It
would be easy enough for historians to say that Blondlot failed because there was ‘‘nothing really
behind his N-rays’’ to support his claims. This way of analysing the past is called Whig history,
that is, a history that crowns the winners, calling them the best and the brightest and which says
the losers like Blondlot lost simply because they were wrong. We recognise here the left side of
Janus’ way of talking where Nature herself discriminates between the bad guys and the good guys.
But, is it possible to use this as the reason why in Paris, in London, in the United States, people
slowly turned N-rays into an artefact? Of course not, since at that time today’s physics obviously
could not be used as the touchstone, or more exactly since today’s state is, in part, the consequence
of settling many controversies such as the N-rays!

Whig historians had an easy life. They came after the battle and needed only one reason to
explain Blondlot’s demise. He was wrong all along. This reason is precisely what does not make
the slightest difference while you are searching for truth in the midst of a polemic. We need, not
one, but many reasons to explain how a dispute stopped and a black box was closed.

However, when talking about a cold part of technoscience we should shift our method like
the scientists themselves who, from hard-core relativists, have turned into dyed-in-the-wool realists.
Nature is now taken as the cause of accurate descriptions of herself. We cannot be more relativist
than scientists about these parts and keep on denying evidence where no one else does. Why?
Because the cost of dispute is too high for an average citizen, even if he or she is a historian and
sociologist of science. If there is no controversy among scientists as to the status of facts, then it is
useless to go on talking about interpretation, representation, a biased or distorted world-view, weak
and fragile pictures of the world, unfaithful spokesmen. Nature talks straight, facts are facts. Full
stop. There is nothing to add and nothing to subtract.

This division between relativists and realist interpretation of science has caused analysts of
science to be put off balance. Either they went on being relativists even about the settled parts of
science—which made them look ludicrous; or they continued being realists even about the warm
uncertain parts—and they made fools of themselves. The third rule of method stated above should
help us in our study because it offers us a good balance. We do not try to undermine the solidity of
the accepted parts of science. We are realists as much as the people we travel with and as much as
the left side of Janus. But as soon as a controversy starts we become as relativist as our informants.
However we do not follow them passively because our method allows us to document both the
construction of fact and of artefact, the cold and the warm, the demodalised and the modalised
statements, and, in particular, it allows us to trace with accuracy the sudden shifts from one face
of Janus to the other. This method offers us, so to speak, a stereophonic rendering of fact-making
instead of its monophonic predecessors!

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Science Policy and Moral Purity:

The Case of Animal Biotechnology

Paul B. Thompson


Animal biotechnology is controversial. The Hoban and Kendall survey on U.S. public attitudes to
genetic engineering reports higher levels of moral concern over animal applications of recombinant
DNA techniques than for microbial, plant, or even human applications (Hoban and Kendall, 1992).
The extended political controversy over recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is also evidence
that some, perhaps many, are reluctant to accept animal biotechnologies, even when they do not
involve the direct manipulation of an animal genome. However, the actual points for caution or
ethical concern with respect to animal biotechnology are seldom specified with care in the public
record. This may be because there are radically different ways to understand the relationship of
products of animal biotechnology, the responsibilities of democratic government, and the role of
the scientific community. This paper describes and then compares two ways of understanding
science-based policy issues using animal biotechnology as the principle case. The contrast between
these two approaches is neither universal nor pervasive for issues in science policy, but the case of
animal biotechnology exemplifies a pattern that can and does appear when science and its policy
implications are disputed. Although many of the specific controversies that are discussed are unique
to animal biotechnology, I would submit that the contrast between two ways of organizing the moral
and political issues raised by animal biotechnology is characteristic of broader problems in demo-
cratic science policy.

The first approach to the issues presumes criteria for purification of moral issues. Purification
begins by assuming that animal biotechnology is the application of rDNA and other lab techniques,
theories, and concepts from molecular biology to non-human animals. Such applications seek either
to establish truths about the biology of animals, or to develop novel biomedical or agricultural
products and processes. A purification need not presume that research seeks one application exclu-
sively; research may serve both goals simultaneously, even for the purist. The purist does, however,
presume that science, technology, society, and values are ontologically distinct: they differ qualita-
tively and inhabit (or perhaps instantiate) different categories or modalities of being. This implies

Paul B. Thompson, ‘‘Science Policy and Moral Purity: The Case of Animal Biotechnology,’’ Agriculture and
Human Values 14, no. 1 (March 1997): 11–27. Copyright � 1997 Springer Science � Business Media BV.
Reprinted by permission.


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Well, you have your theory, it’s had some empirical success and on
that basis you believe it tells you how the world is, if you’re a realist,
or how the world could be, if you’re a constructive empiricist. But
up pops a sociologist and points out that you’re a child of your time,
the product of specific socio-economic and political conditions, and
therefore so is your theory. It says less about how the world is, or
could be, and more about those conditions. Now that’s a strong line
to take but as we’ll see, it has some force. In effect, the sociologist is
raising the following fundamental question: Is science independent
of its social context?

One answer is: Of course not! There is clearly a sense in which the
socio-economic and political conditions have to be right for science
to flourish. After all, if there isn’t appropriate funding, whether from
universities, government or private businesses, or appropriate insti-
tutional structures which can support the right training and career
development, then at the very least science will not have the support
it needs. We can even look back at the history again and suggest that
the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century would not have
happened without the shift from a feudal system, or that the great
developments of the nineteenth century would not have taken place
without the industrial revolution. We can even try to answer the
question why the scientific revolution occurred in Western Europe,
rather than, say, China, by focusing on these specific socio-economic
conditions. But interesting as these suggestions might be, this answer
is basically trivial in that it offers no threat to the objectivity of
science: the conditions might have to be right for science to flourish






























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AN: 377733 ; Steven French.; Science: Key Concepts in Philosophy
Account: s4264928.main.eds


but they don’t determine the content of scientific theories in the way
our sociologist friend seems to suggest.

Another answer is: Of course not! These socio-economic and
political conditions are reflected in the actual content of the the-
ories, in various ways, perhaps quite subtly. Consider Darwin’s
theory of evolution, for example, with its emphasis on survival of
the fittest. Is this anything more than a reflection of the prevailing
Victorian ethos, according to which the ‘fittest’ happen to be white,
British males? This answer is highly non-trivial of course, and
undermines the objectivity of science, or at least replaces that notion
with a very different one.

By ‘objectivity’ here is meant something like the following (at least
in part): science is value-neutral in the sense that ‘contextual’ values
(i.e., preferences, beliefs, interests, etc.) are subjective values of an
individual or the cultural biases of an entire society that have no
place in scientific theories or should have no place in scientific the-
ories. Here then is this chapter’s fundamental question: How might
social factors affect science?


As we’ve already indicated, there are clearly senses in which science
can be considered a social activity but which do not undermine its
objectivity. Here are some of those senses:

1. Social factors may determine what science investigates
With limited funding, not every problem, interesting phenomenon,
or significant medical condition can be investigated. Here’s an
example that generated huge debate, not just among lay-people but
also among scientists themselves: in the 1980s it was decided to con-
struct a huge particle accelerator in Texas, big enough and powerful
enough to reach energies sufficient to reveal one of the Holy Grails
of particle physics, the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the ‘God particle’
because it effectively gives everything mass. However, by 1993, costs
had spiralled to $12 billion, almost three times the original estimate
and equivalent to NASA’s entire contribution to the International
Space Station. Other scientists, including other physicists, began to
raise concerns about the funnelling of federal funds away from other
areas of research. Political considerations also came into play as
Democrat institutions at both state and federal level questioned


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whether they should be supporting a project begun under the
Republicans and at such cost. Eventually the project was cancelled,
having spent $2 billion and leaving some very large tunnels under the
Texas countryside. The ‘God particle’ has yet to be observed.

Shifting to medicine and health care, the allocation of resources in
these areas has long been a source of controversy. A useful statement
of the difficulties involved in setting priorities for funding fundamental
research has been given by the Director of the USA’s National
Institutes for Health at
(‘Research Funding: NIH in the Post-Doubling Era: Realities and
Strategies’). At some point, social, political and sheer economic con-
siderations come into play, leading to the kinds of inequalities that
spark concerns among activists, patients and health-care professionals
themselves. We’ll be looking at examples of these in the next chapter.

Now, do these kinds of considerations undermine the objectivity
of science? No; this is just a matter of allocation of resources.

2. Social factors may determine how science investigates
There are different ways one might go about doing science; different
ways of conducting experiments for example. Some of these might be
deemed socially or ethically unacceptable and in this manner social
conditions may influence scientific practice. So, for example, scientific
research involving human subjects is generally subject to quite rigor-
ous ethical standards, which may rule out certain experiments, no
matter how scientifically interesting. However, other societies with
lower or different standards may have no such compunction. So, Nazi
scientists, for example, conducted appalling experiments on concen-
tration camp inmates, subjecting them to horrific extremes of tem-
perature (by immersing them in ice-cold water, for example), in order
to ‘test’ the resilience of the human body. Clearly we would deem such
experiments as utterly unacceptable and would refuse to condone
them. But what about the results of the Nazi experiments themselves?
Should they be used to help design survival suits for aircraft pilots,
say, who may have to ditch in freezing waters? One view would be that
the experiments were intrinsically ethically unacceptable and there-
fore, their results should not be used for any purposes, not matter how
important. The alternative opinion holds that, although the experi-
ments themselves were completely unacceptable, their consequences
may yet be beneficial. In other words, we should evaluate the ethical
dimension here on the basis of the use to which these experiments can


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be put. And if they can be used to help save lives, then the appalling
suffering of their subjects will not be in vain.

Or consider the current debate over animal research. One side
insists that for many experiments the use of animals is necessary and
these experiments and tests will have beneficial consequences for
humanity. The other argues that they are unnecessary, even mis-
leading, given the different physiologies of the animals involved and
humans, and that the subsequent benefits do not outweigh the eth-
ically abhorrent nature of the experiments themselves. It may be that
legislation is passed which restricts certain kinds of experiments or
outlaws them altogether, in which case certain scientific questions
will go unanswered and certain developments will not be explored or
undertaken. I’m not going to take a stance on these ethical issues
here, the question is: Does this undermine the objectivity of science?
Again, the answer is surely not; ethical standards may constrain
scientific practice in certain ways, just as funding or the lack thereof
does, but within such constraints, the nature of experimental results
themselves and the content of theories remain unaffected.

3. Social factors may determine the content of scientific beliefs
Let’s now turn our attention to the claim that social factors cause or
bring about the kinds of theories scientists come up with and the
ones that they believe in. Now we need to exercise just a little care
before we plunge in. First of all, the idea that the discovery of
scientific hypotheses and theories is driven by social factors may not
be so problematic, particularly if you accept the separation between
discovery and justification we discussed in Chapter 2. There, we
recall, it was argued that theories may be discovered through all sorts
of means but that what is important is how they are justified, or sup-
ported by the evidence. Even if the actual content of the theory is
clearly determined by socio-economic or political factors – imagine
a Darwin who didn’t travel on the Beagle, didn’t study animal breed-
ing and so on, but just reflected on Victorian society and came up
with the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest that way
– it shouldn’t matter in the long run as long as the theory is thrown
to the wolves of experience and rejected or accepted on that basis.
However, if that acceptance or rejection is biased by social factors,
if, for example, what counts as evidence is so determined, or the
impact of that evidence, then we might well conclude that the object-
ivity of science has been eroded, perhaps undermined altogether.


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In such cases, we might well conclude that scientists have come to
hold irrational beliefs. How then, do we distinguish between rational
(objective) and irrational (non-objective) beliefs?

The traditional answer distinguishes between rational and irra-
tional beliefs precisely in terms of the influence of social factors:
rational beliefs are held because they are true, justified by the evi-
dence, etc., and hence are objective’, irrational beliefs are held
because of the influence of certain social factors. A well-known
example of the latter from the history of biology would be the devel-
opment of Lysenko’s ideas in the old Soviet Union.

Lysenko was an agronomist from the Ukraine who was typically
portrayed in the Soviet press as a kind of ‘peasant scientist’, more
interested in practicalities than biological theory. He came to promi-
nence through a technique he called ‘vernalisation’, which allowed
winter crops to be obtained from summer planting by soaking and
chilling the germinated seeds. This offered hopes of a dramatic
increase in agricultural productivity and provided the basis for
Lysenko’s theory that environmental interaction was more impor-
tant for the development of an organism than genetic constitution.
With geneticists under attack during the 1930s for their ‘reactionary
separation of theory and practice’, Lysenko positioned himself as
someone who had achieved practical successes, unlike the geneticists
with their ‘useless scholasticism’. Together with a member of the
Communist Party, Prezent, Lysenko denounced genetics as

. . . reactionary, bourgeois, idealist and formalist. It was held to
be contrary to the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism.
Its stress on the relative stability of the gene was supposedly a
denial of dialectical development as well as an assault on materi-
alism. Its emphasis on internality was thought to be a rejection of
the interconnectedness of every aspect of nature. Its notion of the
randomness and indirectness of mutation was held to undercut
both the determinism of natural processes and man’s ability to
shape nature in a purposeful way.67

In its place, Lysenko developed

. . . a new theory of heredity that rejected the existence of
genes and held that the basis of heredity did not lie in some
special self-reproducing substance. On the contrary, the cell itself


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. . . developed into an organism, and there was no part of it not
subject to evolutionary development. Heredity was based on the
interaction between the organism and its environment, through
the internalisation of external conditions.68

Hence according to Lysenkoism, there is no distinction between
what biologists call the genotype, or the nexus of genes inherited by
an individual, and the phenotype, that is, the characteristics of the
individual that result from the interaction between heredity and the

With genetics research slandered as being in the service of racism
and caricatured as the ‘handmaiden’ of Nazi propaganda, and with
leading geneticists arrested, imprisoned and even executed,
Lysenko’s theory came to be officially endorsed, with Lysenko
himself quoting Engels (co-author with Marx of the Communist
Manifesto} in support of it. The effects on Soviet genetics research
and on biology in general were devastating, and it wasn’t until the
politically more tolerant mid-60s that Lysenko was denounced, his
theory rejected and his practical success revealed to have been ill-
founded and exaggerated. In 1964, the physicist Andrei Sakharov
stood up in the General Assembly of the Soviet Academy of
Sciences and declared that Lysenko was

. . . responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology
and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-
scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning,
and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many
genuine scientists.69

Although an understandable desire to achieve practical successes
played its part in this story (understandable since Soviet agriculture
had suffered terribly from the forced collectivisation of the 1920s),
Lysenko’s views were accepted and widely adopted on the basis of
political considerations and hence this acceptance can be taken as
unjustified and, ultimately, irrational.

An alternative answer to the above question of how we distinguish
between rational and irrational beliefs throws the distinction itself
into doubt and suggests that we should treat all beliefs as on a par,
in the sense that so-called ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ beliefs should be
subject to the same kind of explanation, where, it turns out, that


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explanation will be in terms of social factors. So, rather than saying
that certain beliefs are or should be held because they are true, or
justified by the evidence, and others should not, this approach advo-
cates equality of treatment – look at the social factors behind the
acceptance of all beliefs, without exception. That may sound quite
reasonable, but an advocate of answer 1 may well protest that it
remains to be shown that the acceptance of scientific theories and
hypotheses is driven by these social factors. What is needed, and
what the defenders of answer 2 have provided in some cases, is a
detailed reconstruction of particular cases of the acceptance of the-
ories, explicitly indicating the factors involved and their impact.
These studies have of course been disputed, but let’s continue to
explore this kind of approach.

If the content of theories is determined in this way, in the sense
that they are not just discovered due to prevailing social conditions,
but accepted for similar reasons, then our picture of science as objec-
tive, value-neutral, somehow standing above the socio-economic
and political context has to be given up. Scientific theories and
scientific Tacts’ must now be seen as ‘socially constructed’.


The view that theories are accepted, ultimately, for social reasons
and that scientific facts are socially constructed has become gener-
ally known as ‘social constructivism’ and one of its most influential
schools of thought is widely known as the ‘Strong Programme’.
The core idea of this position is that there is no reason why the
content of all scientific beliefs cannot be explained in terms of social
factors. It is founded on the following version of the above idea that
we shouldn’t introduce distinctions between rational beliefs, which
are good, and irrational ones, which are in some sense bad:

The Equivalence Postulate: All beliefs are on a par with one another
with respect to the causes of their credibility.

Here’s how the two most famous advocates of the Strong
Programme put it:

The position we shall defend is that the incidence of all beliefs
without exception calls for empirical investigation and must be


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accounted for by finding the specific, local causes of this credi-
bility. This means that regardless of whether the sociologist
evaluates a belief as true or rational, or as false and irrational, he
must search for the causes of its credibility.70

By specific, local causes of credibility here, Barnes and Bloor mean
social factors, so the idea is to look for such factors behind the
acceptance of all beliefs, without splitting them up into the rational
and the irrational.

Now this raises a further interesting question: How is credibility
established? In most cases, we don’t get to work on that many
scientific theories. Even if your particular theory, discovered and
justified and accepted in the ways we have considered here, wins you
a Nobel Prize, it is unlikely that you will have personally considered,
evaluated and judged the evidence yourself. Typically we – whether
scientists or lay-people – rely on the judgments of others, particu-
larly experts in their fields. An important component of this reliance
is obviously trust. So, this raises the further interesting question,
who or what can you trust?

One answer, which might be viewed as the traditional one, pre-
viously discussed in Chapter 4, is that you can trust the evidence of
your own senses. It is this that supposedly grounds the objectivity
of science. A more modern alternative is that you can trust the
experts, but who are they? When you think of an expert you might
immediately think of the TV image of the doctor or lab tech in the
white coat, but why should you trust someone in a white coat?!
Well, it’s supposed to reflect a particular social status, achieved
after a certain level of training, and the person wearing it is sup-
posed to inspire a certain level of trust. That’s all fine and good
when it comes to the iconography of TV ads but where does this
leave objectivity? Again, the traditional view is that it leaves it
exactly where it should be, since the expert is transparently objec-
tive. What this means is that the expert stands in a kind of chain,
leading from someone making the observations to you, and all he
or she does is to transmit the facts, as it were, along the chain,
without adding to them, or taking anything away, without distort-
ing them or modifying them in any way. The objectivity we achieve
from observation is passed on through the expert and that is
why we can trust them, on this view: the expert is a transparent
transmitter of the facts.


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This is fine as long as we can be assured that the expert remains
transparent and free from bias. But how plausible is this? The soci-
ologist will insist that it is not very plausible at all, since he or she is
immersed in a particular social context and hence will be subject to
all the contingent social, political and cultural factors associated
with that context. By shifting objectivity from the facts to the expert,
immersed in a particular social context, it has become socially deter-
mined, and hence, according to the traditional view, is not bias-free,
social-factor-free objectivity at all!

Now you might ask, can’t we admit that trust is crucial to estab-
lishing scientists’ knowledge claims but insist that facts still play a
role? In this way, ‘objectivity’ might not be completely socially
determined. Some sociologists reject even this insistence and claim
that social factors determine the facts themselves. On this view,
scientific ‘facts’ are nothing more than social artefacts or constructs.
Researching the early history of modern science, Shapin and
Shaffer focus on the work of Boyle, today perhaps most well known
for ‘Boyle’s Law’ of gases. In particular they examine his experi-
mental work and they argue that this has to be understood as an
attempt to establish secure knowledge and scientific order in the
context of the changing political order following the English Civil
War. And radically, perhaps, they point to Boyle as the architect of
the view that the scientist, who was of course a gentleman, should
be seen as a modest witness, whose apparently ‘objective’ language
helped establish ‘matters of fact’ in the context of a community of
like-minded individuals. They write: The objectivity of the experi-
mental matter of fact was an artifact of certain forms of discourse
and certain modes of social solidarity.’71 What could this mean?
How are we to understand the claim that so-called scientific facts
are ‘socially constructed’? The sociologists’ answer is that scientific
knowledge is constructed through social interaction, that is,
through a form of negotiation, between experts in laboratories.
External reality is hence not seen as the cause of scientific know-
ledge; rather scientists establish ‘reality’ through the claims they
make as purveyors of truth. This is quite a radical position to adopt
and we can immediately appreciate that the social construction of
facts leads to a form of relativism, since if the facts depend on the
social context, then a different social context (at a different time, or
in a different place) will lead to a different set of facts and different
scientific knowledge.


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Let’s look at this consequence a little more closely. One formulation
of relativism takes it to hold that there is no privileged standard for
the justification of beliefs. In other words, you cannot say that
certain beliefs are justified and hence rational to hold because they
are supported by the facts – what counts as a fact depends on the
social context. Here’s what Barnes and Bloor say: Tor the relativist
there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs
are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.’72

How do we arrive at such a position? Here are the three (easy) steps
to relativism:

1) Different social groups hold different beliefs on a given issue.

2) What you believe is relative to the locally accepted standards of
justification, i.e., the standards accepted by a specific social group
(e.g., scientists, theologians, shamans, etc.).

3) Since there is no socially independent standard of justification,
all beliefs are on a par.

According to the relativist, standards for the acceptability or
justification of scientific beliefs are socially determined by values
that are external to science. There is no privileged ‘global’
justification, such as being in correspondence with the ‘facts’.
What counts as a scientific ‘fact’ is socially determined and so is the
truth. Hence science is no ‘better’ than any other form of belief; all
beliefs are equal because there is no valid distinction between
what is ‘really’ objective ‘knowledge’ and what is locally accepted
as such.

You might find such a view absurd and feel that if this relativism
is a consequence of the sociological view of objectivity as deter-
mined by social context, then the sociological approach must be
rejected. However, Barnes and Bloor embrace their inner – and
outer – relativist, declaiming:

In the academic world relativism is everywhere abominated.
Critics feel free to describe it by words such as ‘pernicious’ or
portray it as a ‘threatening tide’. On the political Right relativism


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is held to destroy the defences against Marxism and
Totalitarianism. If knowledge is said to be relative to persons and
places, culture or history, then is it not but a small step to con-
cepts like ‘Jewish physics’? On the Left, relativism is held to sap
commitment, and the strength needed to overthrow the defences
of the established order. How can the distorted vision of bour-
geois science be denounced without a standpoint which is itself
special and secure?

The majority of critics of relativism subscribe to some version
of rationalism and portray relativism as a threat to rational,
scientific standards. It is, however, a convention of academic dis-
course that might is not right. Numbers may favour the opposite
position, but we shall show that the balance of argument favours
a relativist theory of knowledge. Far from being a threat to the
scientific understanding of forms of knowledge, relativism is
required by it. Our claim is that relativism is essential to all those
disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, the history of insti-
tutions and ideas, and even cognitive psychology, which account
for the diversity of systems of knowledge, their distribution and
the manner of their change. It is those who oppose relativism and
who grant certain forms of knowledge a privileged status, who
pose the real threat to a scientific understanding of knowledge
and cognition.73

That is, they insist that relativism is essential for understanding how
science works. Now this is a provocative view, but it faces certain

Problem 1\ if all views are relative to social context, what about
relativism itself?! If the defenders of relativism and the social
construction of scientific facts insist that their view is objectively
correct, then their relativism is selective. However, there is a straight-
forward response to this: the belief that scientific Tacts’ are deter-
mined by social factors is itself determined by social factors. This is
known as ‘reflexivity’; the relativist is reflexive in holding that rela-
tivism is itself relative. Of course what that means is that you could
always respond that social factors lead you to maintain that
scientific facts are not determined by social factors but in accepting
that your claim that science is objective cannot itself be objectively
defended, you’ve given the game away!


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Problem 2: relativism blocks change, both political as well as
scientific. This is potentially a more serious problem. Consider: if
what counts as a fact is determined by and relative to political
context then communist-biased facts, say, are just as ‘objective’ on
this view as non-communist or ‘capitalist-biased’ ones and only a
change in political context will lead to any change in the relevant
science. If what counts as acceptable science is determined by the
local community, then if there’s no change in the social community
there will be no change in science. If we have no objectively
justified, rational grounds for accepting one theory rather than
another, in what sense can there be scientific progress? The stand-
ard position is that progress is towards the truth and is driven by
objective, rational factors such as those having to do with the evi-
dence. If we accept some form of relativism then this form of
progress goes out the window; and all we have left is change
through change of social context. If we think there is scientific
progress in the standard sense, then we’d be inclined to reject the
relativist position.

Problem 3: relativism blocks communication and understanding,
whether between different social communities across the world
today, or between different scientific eras across time. The fact that
we can understand the beliefs of cultures which are very different
from ours and of scientists from the eighteenth, seventeenth or pre-
AD centuries is surely indicative that not all beliefs are relative;
different communities (whether scientific, cultural, or whatever)
share some common beliefs. It is in this vein that the rationalist
philosopher Lukes insisted that ‘. . . the existence of a common
reality is a necessary precondition of our understanding [another
society’s] language’.74 What he means by this is not that we must
agree on the reality of quantum fields, for example. What he means
is that this other society must possess our distinction between truth
and falsity, because if it did not ‘. . . we would be unable even to
agree about what counts as the successful identification of public
(spatio-temporally located) objects’.75 It is on the basis of such an
agreement that a kind of ‘bridgehead’ between the two cultures or
two scientific eras can be constructed. So the idea is that we can
begin to piece together an understanding of what Newton or
Darwin or Freud believed because they shared our distinction
between ‘true’ and ‘false’ at the basic level of the kinds of objects we


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can see with our own eyes all around us. And likewise we can begin
to understand the beliefs of different scientific communities today,
even if some of those beliefs are driven by, say, political considera-
tions. So, consider the Lysenko case again: even though Lysenko’s
theories were developed and widely accepted on the basis of politi-
cal factors, opponents were still able to understand them, debate
them and, to their cost in many cases, reject them.

Now the relativist might respond that even when it comes to
‘public’ objects, people in other cultures may have very different
beliefs about them. Take a large hill, standing prominently out in the
countryside, for example: we might see it as a particular geological
formation, but the local culture might view it as a source of magic,
or the home of a sleeping king and his retinue who will awake to
defend the country in its hour of need. So, there is a form of rela-
tivism even here. However, the rationalist is not insisting that
members of the other society must identify a hill as a ‘hill’, in the
sense that we do (as a geological formation, say) but that they must
be capable of distinguishing it from a tree, for example, or a pool of
water. Although the members of the other society may attribute
certain properties to hills that we do not – such as possessing magical
powers, say – they must attribute enough of the properties that we
do in order to distinguish a hill from a small pool of water, say. Such
a property might be that of relative impenetrability, so that our
friends from the other society will agree in assigning the value True’
to the statement ‘You can’t walk through a hill.’ As far as the anti-
relativist is concerned, that is all we need to start building our
bridgehead with this strange other culture.

That this kind of bridgehead can be built is supported in two
ways. First of all, there is the evidence from anthropologists them-
selves, who go to strange, far-away places, study cultures very
different from ours and observe people studiously not walking
through hills. In other words, despite what the relativist says, there
are apparently no cases of anthropologists, or historians of science
for that matter, returning from their studies empty handed and
saying ‘Nope, I just couldn’t understand that social or scientific com-
munity at all.’ However, this kind of practice-based reason is not
entirely straightforward, since the relativist may counter that neither
the anthropologists nor the historians approach the other culture or
scientific era with a kind of blank slate; rather, they have their
own philosophical predilections which they may bring into play,


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particularly if they have received training themselves in the methods
of science and hence our framework of rationality. So, it is not sur-
prising that they return with reports of contact of a form that
supports such a framework. In other words, the data the anthropol-
ogists or historians bring back with them are already laden with our
society’s (broad) theory of rationality.

We recall our earlier discussion of the theory-ladenness of obser-
vation in Chapter 6. It can be tackled in two ways: first, the theory
with which the observations are laden is not the theory being tested;
second, observations in science are typically ‘robust’ in the sense that
the data remain (broadly) the same across a range of instrumenta-
tion with correspondingly different background theories. The first
response is not available to the rationalist, since the concern is pre-
cisely that data are laden with precisely the theoretical framework
that is being tested. The second response is potentially very interest-
ing but what would be required would be for anthropologists or his-
torians of science from radically different cultural backgrounds to
ours to make the necessary observations, and it is hard to see how
that could be achieved. Here the rationalist may well throw up her
arms and insist that now questions are being begged against her,
since she insists that there could be no such radically different
cultural backgrounds!

There is also a second reason that is particularly interesting with
regard to our discussion of rationality and objectivity in science.
Lukes expresses it as follows:

. . . any culture, scientific or not, which engages in successful pre-
diction (and it is difficult to see how any society could survive
which did not) must presuppose a given reality [and] . . . it is, so
to speak, no accident that the predictions of both primitive and
modern common-sense and of science come off. Prediction
would be absurd unless there were events to predict.76

Now this appears to be nothing more than a form of the infamous
‘No Miracles Argument’, which underpins scientific realism and
which we discussed in Chapter 8. The gist of the argument, we recall,
is that the success of science – where this is understood in terms of
making predictions – would be a miracle, unless the claims it makes
about reality were (broadly) true and the objects it posits also exist.
However, as we noted previously, this is highly contentious, and


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again, we recall, it is typically presented as a form of inference that
the anti-realist rejects as question-begging. Of course, as applied to
his project of defending rationalism against the relativist, the ration-
alist might reply that such objections are all very well when it comes
to the unobservable objects of science, but that what he is concerned
with, of course, is everyday reality and its ‘public, spatio-temporally
located’ objects, like rocks and hills. So, consider the following
example: the best explanation for the noise behind the skirting
board, the nibbled biscuits, etc., is that there is a mouse in the house;
therefore there is a mouse in the house. If the relativist is willing to
accept this for ‘everyday’ objects, such as mice, which sit on the
bridgehead, then she should be willing to accept the more general
form as suggested by Lukes above, and her opposition to universal
criteria of rationality and objectivity would be undermined.

However, as often is the case in philosophical debates, things
are not quite so simple, unfortunately. In the context of the
realist-anti-realist debate, a constructive empiricist such as van
Fraassen has rejected the move from accepting these kinds of infer-
ence for everyday objects, such as mice, to accepting them in general.
Van Fraassen is no relativist but he notes that we have to be careful
about the form of rationality we put up in opposition to the rela-
tivist’s view. In particular, he rejects what he calls a ‘Prussian’ rule-
based approach to rationality in favour of an ‘English’ permissive
approach. According to the former, you are rational only if you
follow certain rules, whereas on the latter view, you are rational
unless you violate certain constraints, such as being consistent (so
was Bohr rational in proposing his famously inconsistent theory of
the atom?!).

The point is that it is not clear that the rationalist can justify the
above reason for rejecting relativism on the grounds that we typically
apply it locally in the form of inference to the best explanation, even
when it is only ‘public’ objects that we are concerned about. His rela-
tivist opposition might insist that since we are not compelled to
accept it at the local level, we are likewise not compelled to adopt it
as applied globally

Even worse, the relativist may feel that the whole argument, and
in particular, the claim that ‘prediction would be absurd unless there
were events to predict’, begs the very question at issue. The claim
that successful prediction would be a miracle or absurd, unless
the primitive, common-sense or scientific claims from which such


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predictions are drawn actually ‘matched’ reality in some way,
presupposes a view of the relative plausibility of miracles which may
be particular to our culture. Other cultures may have beliefs accord-
ing to which the occurrence of miracles is not so implausible and
hence in that context, successful predictions even at the low-level of
planting crops and avoiding walking into hills might indeed be
regarded as accidental or miraculous.

At this stage of the debate, the rationalist might well protest that
the relativist is not herself & member of a society in which miracles
are taken to occur on a regular basis, but a member of ours in which
they are not. If the relativist refuses to accept the very framework of
debate and argument of our culture, then what is the point of any
further discussion? Of course, the relativist may insist that she does
indeed accept the rules of academic debate but only as contextually
determined. In that case, however, the rationalist may feel that her
argument goes through, since the point is not whether members of
another, so-called ‘primitive’, society accept the argument, but
whether we do. And if we do, even if only on a contextual basis, then
relativism is undermined – only in this context, granted, but then,
that’s the only context that is relevant for these purposes!

At this point we must stop. We have moved far from our original
concern with objectivity, rationality and the independence of science
from social and political factors. Like many philosophical debates
the matter has not been decisively settled, but I hope you have some
idea of the issues at stake. We can highlight some of these issues even
further by considering a concrete example of the influence of
specific factors, such as gender bias, for example, which is the topic
of the next chapter.


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In the previous chapter we considered whether social factors in
general might undermine the objectivity of science and we looked at
one view which maintains that they do. Here we will look at one
particular factor, or set of factors, and consider the extent to which
they threaten that objectivity. The factor concerned has to do with
the tricky issue of gender, so our fundamental question will be: Does
gender bias undermine the objectivity of science?


Let’s consider the ways in which gender bias might impact on

1. Gender bias may determine the proportion of men and
women in science
This seems entirely plausible. Recent surveys have concluded
that although, on average, women account for around 50 per cent
of those who have been in higher education and are employed in pro-
fessional or technical occupations, across the European Union,
compared to just 44 per cent in the total labour force, only 29 per
cent of science and engineering posts were held by women.77

Previously, a major cause of gender imbalance in science was lack of
education: women were either actively discouraged from pursuing
science degrees or at the very least dismissed as oddities or jokes.
Since the mid-60s, however, the number of women receiving bach-
elor’s degrees in science and engineering has increased year on year,
and are now roughly half of the total. Nevertheless, it is clear that
women face certain gender-related barriers to entry into a scientific


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