Professor Latour's Philosophical Mystifications

by Alan Sokal

[Published, under the title "Why I wrote my parody" and with the unfortunate omission of a key paragraph, in Le Monde, 31 January 1997. Translated from the original French by the author.]

The debate over objectivity and relativism, science and postmodernism, which for the past eight months has been rocking American academic circles -- particularly those of the political left -- has apparently now arrived in France. And with what a bang! Following Denis Duclos (Le Monde of 3 January), we now have the eminent sociologist Bruno Latour offering his interpretation of the so-called "Sokal affair" (18 January). Alas, his article is both too audacious and too modest.

Latour is too audacious when he claims, without offering the slightest evidence, that "a very small number of theoretical physicists, deprived of their fat Cold War budgets, are searching for a new threat" by attacking postmodern intellectuals. Ah, would that things were so simple! But how then does one explain the numerous sociologists, historians, literary critics and philosophers who have joined in the critique of postmodern relativism? I don't pretend to guess other people's motivations, but I am more than happy to explain my own: I wrote my parody not to defend science against the supposed barbarian hordes of sociology, but to defend the American academic left against irrationalist tendencies which, though fashionable, are nevertheless suicidal.

Even more audaciously, Latour accuses me of leading a crusade against France, portrayed as "another Colombia, a country of dealers who produce hard drugs -- derridium, lacanium -- that American graduate students are unable to resist any more than they resist crack." It's a beautiful image, but what is the reality? Far from the nationalism conjured up by Latour, I am in fact a convinced internationalist (it's not by accident that I taught mathematics in Sandinista Nicaragua). What matters is never the origin of an idea, but its content; intellectual laziness and posturing deserve to be criticized, wherever they come from. To be sure, the postmodernist/poststructuralist gibberish that is now hegemonic in some sectors of the American academy is in part of French origin; but my compatriots have long ago given it a home-grown flavor that faithfully reflects our own national obsessions. The targets of my parody are thus eminent French and American intellectuals, without discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Latour is, by contrast, too modest when he tries to minimize the lessons of the "affair" by claiming that Social Text is "quite simply a bad journal". First of all, that's not true: Social Text's latest issue, devoted to the crisis of academic labor, is well written and extremely interesting. But above all this reasoning evades the real scandal, which lies not in the mere fact that my article was published, but in its content. And here's the secret that makes the article so amusing, and which Latour would prefer to hide: the most hilarious parts of my article were not written by me! Rather, they are direct quotes from the Masters (whom I flatter with shameless praise). And among these Masters one indeed finds Derrida and Lacan, Aronowitz and Haraway -- but one also finds our overly modest friend ... Bruno Latour.

It must thus have taken Professor Latour a goodly dose of chutzpah to proclaim: "It's a clever joke, an astute intervention. It gives a good thrashing to people who deserve it. [But not to] researchers who, like me, work in Science Studies" and "have scientific training" (Libération, 3 December 1996). I won't bore the readers of Le Monde by making explicit the "scientific training" exhibited by Latour in his essay on Einstein's theory of relativity -- a theory that he interprets as "a contribution to the sociology of delegation" (Social Studies of Science 18, pages 3-44, 1988). The details will appear in a book that Jean Bricmont and I are currently writing, on Les impostures scientifiques des philosophes (post-)modernes [The (post-)modern philosophers' fraudulent science]. Suffice it to say that some colleagues have suspected Latour's article to be, like mine, a parody.

In the remainder of his Le Monde article, Latour purports to address issues of the sociology of science, but his exposition is confused: he mixes up ontology and epistemology, and he attacks positions that no one would defend. "Instead of recognizing a science in the absolute exactitude of its knowledge, one recognizes it in the quality of collective experience that it sets up" -- but who nowadays would claim that science provides "absolute exactitudes"? Newtonian mechanics describes the motions of the planets (and many other things) to an extraordinary precision -- and this is an objective fact about the world -- but Newtonian mechanics is nevertheless wrong. Quantum mechanics and general relativity are closer approximations to the truth -- and this too is an objective fact -- but these theories too, being mutually incompatible, will have to be superseded by an as-yet-nonexistent theory of quantum gravity. Every scientist knows perfectly well that our knowledge is always partial and subject to revision -- which does not make it any less objective. In the same way, Latour reduces relativism to a banal "ability to change one's point of view", as if this were not a long-standing characteristic par excellence of the scientific attitude.

But Latour's main tactic, in presenting his vision of the sociology of science, is to empty it of all its content by retreating into platitudes that no one would question. The social history of science "proposes a realistic view of scientific activity" and "studies with excitement the innumerable links between the objects of science and those of culture" -- who could fail to applaud? But where is the much-vaunted rupture with the traditional sociology of science à la Merton? This tactic hides everything that is radical, original and false in the "new" sociology of science: notably, its claim that one can (and should) explain the history of science without taking into account the truth or falsity of the scientific theories in question. Which means, if one is honest, that one must explain the acceptance of Newton's or Darwin's theories without ever invoking the empirical evidence supporting them. To pass from this attitude to the idea that there is no such thing as empirical evidence, or that such evidence is in any case unimportant, is a step that is too often taken (by Feyerabend, for example) and that leads straight to irrationalism.

To better appreciate the ambiguities in Latour's theses, let us reread the Third Rule of Method from his book Science in Action: "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." We obviously have here a profound confusion between "Nature's representation" and "Nature", that is, between our theories about the world and the world itself. Depending on how one resolves the ambiguity (using twice "Nature's representation" or "Nature"), one can obtain the truism that our scientific theories are the result of a social process (as the so-called traditional sociology of science had demonstrated perfectly well); or the radically idealist claim that the external world is created by scientists' negotiations; or again the truism that the outcome of a scientific controversy cannot be explained solely by the state of the world; or else the radically constructivist claim that the state of the world can play no role when one explains how and why a controversy has been settled.

Latour frequently presents himself as a philosopher, and this rule is one of his seven Rules of Method. It is difficult to believe that its ambiguity arises solely from the author's carelessness. Indeed, this type of ambiguity is very useful in debates: the radical interpretation can be used to attract the attention of readers inexperienced in philosophy; and the innocuous interpretation can be used as a point of retreat when the obvious falsity of the radical interpretation is exposed ("but I never said that ...").

However, the problems of the philosophy of science, and of the human sciences quite generally, are too important to be treated with such sloppiness. On the contrary, they require a great intellectual rigor. The "hard" and "soft" sciences are indeed in the same boat. Flirting with relativism and irrationalism won't lead us anywhere.

Alan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University.