How Critical Theory Learned to Trust the Science
Bruno Latour, the French philosopher, died this month at 75. Known earlier in his career as a bold debunker of science's claim to objectivity, he in later years reversed course and offered an account of why we should “believe science” after all—especially when it came to climate change.
One of the most revealing artifacts of Latour’s intellectual shift is a 2004 article, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?,” which is in effect a self-disavowal. The article presaged the crisis that now afflicts academic critical theory, which is still seen by both detractors and adherents as a subversive, iconoclastic discipline, but whose practitioners have largely settled into the role of rubber-stamping the latest ideological fads of cultural liberalism. Critical theorists’ relinquishment of their critical stance has kept them comfortably ensconced in academia at the expense of the intellectual autonomy they once enjoyed.
Latour became famous for using sociological analysis to deconstruct the operations of science. Books like Science in Action (1987) and Aramis, or, the Love of Technology (1993) exemplify his approach, which critiques the notion of a neutral scientific truth by delving into the social contexts in which scientific knowledge production takes place.
His work often focused on the laboratory, as suggested by the title of his first book, co-written with Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: the Construction of Scientific Facts (1979). However, Latour was also interested in the institutions which fund and house laboratories—not only universities but also foundations, government agencies, and corporations. Extending this line of inquiry, he explored the social and power relations between scientists and funding gatekeepers and the influence of new technology over how science is incentivized, conceptualized, and socially realized in the lab.
For Latour, scientific facts are not discovered by scientists. Rather, they are produced by “actor-networks,” which encompass scientists, the institutional and social structures that enable their work, and the objects they study and work with (one of Latour’s innovations was to accord non-human entities like subatomic particles and microbes agency within the scientific process). The analysis of an actor-network gives a critical theorist quite a lot to do, because for every discovery reported by the natural sciences, there is a vast actor-network to map out.
Latour’s approach subtly transfers the aura of authority from the scientist to the critical theorist. The scientist, once located within an actor-network, can be shown not to have “discovered” anything, but rather to have played one social role among many in a kind of conspiracy, hidden even to its participants, among interacting social, technical, and natural entities. By contrast, the critical theorist is better positioned to play the authoritative role.
During the 1980s and 1990s, this intellectual framing had obvious appeal to critical theorists in the social sciences and humanities, who also needed to persuade institutions and funding bodies of the value of their work. It was widely imitated in new disciplines blending sociology with history of science and technology.
In his 2004 article, however, Latour disavowed that framing. Whereas previously, he had presented his actor-network analytic as an epistemological master key to understanding the socially transient nature of scientific truth, he now presented critical theory as an obsolete tactic: “Generals have always been accused of being on the ready one war late, especially French generals—especially these days.” What was the “war” in this gently self-deprecating analogy? The answer is clear enough throughout his subsequent work: the fight against global warming.
If earlier, Latour had been a leading theorist deconstructing the pretensions of science to neutrality and objectivity, now the idea of a “Latourian” science-denialism appalled him. As he noted, it would not be hard for a different sort of theorist—a conspiracy theorist—to find encouragement and even methodological guidance in his work, given that he has “spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts.” Now, those who expressed skepticism about climate science were making strikingly similar arguments.
In recent years, the need to “trust the science” has nearly become an article of faith among college-educated elites, regardless of how much critical theory they studied in college. So why had Latour, before his disavowal, distrusted science? Why, more broadly, did ideas like his gain traction in the academy in the final decades of the last century?
The answer, in part, is that they appealed to a lingering aversion among many post-1960s intellectuals to various institutional and technological projects associated with Cold War-era “Big Science.” The counterculture in which these intellectuals had been steeped was hostile to Fordist mass production, technocratic administration, the development of nuclear weaponry, and the figure of the “obedient engineer.” Latour offered them a way to transfer intellectual authority away from scientists and engineers and the institutions that employed them—and toward themselves.
But climate science, for Latour and like-minded critical theorists, wasn’t to be grouped in with Cold War-era Big Science—even if climate science was, and is, both “Big” and “Science.” It’s not hard to see why. Postwar Big Science had been linked with the military-industrial complex and the West’s pursuit of geopolitical dominance. In contrast, climate scientists aligned themselves with activist causes that originated in the counterculture, and saw themselves as fighting on behalf of humanity as a whole and against the fossil fuel industry and other industrial juggernauts. Hence, to join with the forces critiquing climate science would be a tactical error that mistook the struggles of the early 21st century for those of the previous century.
Even if we accept that premise, a dilemma remains: What work is left for the critical theorist resigned to “trusting the science”? After all, this attitude places such a figure well downstream from the social arena Latour spent the prime of his career critiquing: that of science and its social, technological, and monetary support systems. So in this new scenario, the theorist waits passively to receive truths worked out in advance somewhere upstream. At best, after receiving these truths, produced by scientists competing over NSF funds and summit invitations, the critical theorist adds some intellectual polish—or develops a hermeneutic to stigmatize skeptics.
One objective of late 20th century critical theory had been to maintain the intellectual sovereignty of the social theorist and of the institutional and livelihood trappings around this figure. A theorist who doesn’t merely “trust the science” has his or her own type of work to do, and thus has solid ground on which to assert intellectual autonomy.
In 2004, despite his pivot, Latour still valued this autonomy. In “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” he attempted to deal with this dilemma through an appeal to the anti-modernist philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger offered Latour a distinction between authentic and alienating experience, which Latour hoped to repurpose as a mechanism to help a new generation of critical theorists distinguish “good” from “bad” science. The distinction is vague and almost tautological. Still, Latour recognized that if critical theorists were to retain any intellectual autonomy, they would have to refer to some kind of value system more fundamental than science.
In the 2020s, the intellectual offspring of critical theory have joined not only the fight against global warming, but the fight against “misinformation.” This alignment amounts to being even more credulous about claims of stable, non-political distinctions between truth and falsehood, since such distinctions are necessary to determine what counts as “misinformation.” At the same time, though, those informed by critical theory still engage in selective science skepticism (notably, about the areas of biology dealing with sex differences).
For critical theory, this represents a double failure. Latour’s desire for a rigorous analytical mechanism for choosing which science to embrace and which to treat as politically constructed has not been fulfilled. Instead, a coalitional logic worked out well upstream from the terrain of critical theorists now determines which science they must identify as good or bad. Critical theorists do not even cherry-pick which science they deem trustworthy. They simply wait to be told—by the foundations that fund their work, or by political parties and activists—which cherries to pick and which to avoid.
Today, critical theorists would likely react to Latour’s Heidegerrian paean to “authenticity” with instant suspicion about its reactionary connotations—just as they recently repudiated Heidegger’s intellectual heir Giorgio Agamben for his critical stance toward the science around Covid. All of this points to the degeneration of critical theory from the intellectual autonomy and prestige it enjoyed during Latour’s earlier career to the coalitionally subordinate position it occupies now.