Science Studies Study
Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Bruno Latour. Harvard University Press, 1999. 352 pp. $45.
In this book of impassioned and creative explorations into scientific life, Bruno Latour offers himself as a reasonable man who is ready and willing to lead combatants of the "science wars" off the battle plain and onto higher ground. This may surprise some in the scientific and scholarly worlds who had heard in one forum or another that Latour was the incendiary leader of a rag-tag band of sociologists, philosophers, academic feminists and literary theorists who assert that reality is a fiction and have therefore declared themselves to be enemies of science. It is unfortunate that such cartoonish "anti-science" characterizations of those who have been developing the field of science studies has polarized debate in ways that have ill-served the academy, the scientific enterprise and the larger polity, but that is part of the "reality of science studies" today.
Latour uses Pandora's Hope as a platform to address this stasis, not by presenting a point-by-point rebuttal of his critics but instead by pressing "inquiries, anecdotes, myths, legends, textual studies and more than a little bit of conceptual bricolage" into the service of revealing what he believes to be the way forward. The text is comprised of essays about the genesis of and context for the science wars, case studies of scientific practice and elaboration of his current theoretical stances. His writing can be stimulating, fresh and at times genuinely moving, but it can also display a distractingly mannered style in which a rococo zeal for compounding metaphors, examples, definitions and abstractions can frustrate even readers who approach his work with the best of intentions (notwithstanding the inclusion of a nine-page glossary of terms and liberal use of diagrams in an attempt to achieve the utmost clarity). In some respects, then, this is a book that works best for those who come to its pages already possessing some familiarity with philosophical discussions of the grounds for knowledge or of sociological investigations into scientific work practices, as such preparation provides some anchorage in following Latour's train of thought.
But there are other aspects of these essays that speak beyond these specialized audiences and deserve a wider public. Latour's descriptions of science in action (the title of perhaps his most widely known work) can be engaging and wonderfully discerning, as in his discussions here of scientists analyzing soil in the Amazon, the activities of French atomic scientists in 1939 or the work of Louis Pasteur. Of importance as well is Latour's focus on questions of science and politics, and his insistence that many perplexing aspects of today's science wars are the consequence of our culture's struggle "to have a science and a democracy together." Latour explores this theme in two chapters that examine Plato's Gorgias, which he presents as having given birth to flawed conceptions of science, democracy and the body politic that trouble us still. It is hard not to be caught up in the author's obvious delight in deploying a classic work from antiquity to bring current concerns into sharper focus, following along as he manages to leave the reader with the impression that the protagonists Socrates and Callicles are not only in dialogue with each other but with Latour as well.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that Latour will manage to convert those critics who feel his curiosity about the scientific enterprise was an ill-fated venture; nor will many of his colleagues in science studies be likely to look kindly on his sometimes grandiose assertions of having now settled thorny questions that render all other perspectives moot. But perhaps books such as this one will invite those engaged in discussions of scientific realities to engage in robust and strongly felt debate without demonizing their opponents.—Katherine Pandora, History of Science, University of Oklahoma