Jop de Vrieze in Science:
French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, 70, has long been a thorn in the side of science. But in the age of “alternative facts,” he’s coming to its defense.
Latour, who retired last month from his official duties at Sciences Po, a university for the social sciences here, shot to fame with the 1979 book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, written with U.K. sociologist Steve Woolgar. To research it, Latour spent 2 years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, acting as an anthropologist observing scientists at work. In 1987, Latour elaborated on his thinking in the textbook Science in Action.
Central to Latour’s work is the notion that facts are constructed by communities of scientists, and that there is no distinction between the social and technical elements of science. Latour received praise for his approach and insights, but his relativist and “social-constructivist” views triggered a backlash as well. In their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt accused Latour and other sociologists of discrediting their profession and jeopardizing trust in science.
The heated debate that followed, known as the “science wars,” lasted for many years. In later writings, Latour acknowledged that the criticism of science had created a basis for antiscientific thinking and had paved the way in particular for the denial of climate change, now his main topic. Today, he hopes to help rebuild confidence in science.
Science Insider spoke with Latour in his apartment here in the French capital. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.