Science Wars Redux

Science Wars Redux

My first 4S conference was in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1987. I remember three things in particular from that conference: the dinner at a “Medieval” banquet hall, community singing of Tom Lehrer songs on the steps there as we waited for a bus back, and Bruno Latour’s author meets critics session for Science in Action. At that session, one ex auditorio critic, Nils Roll-Hansen (Norwegian biologist and professor (now emeritus) of philosophy of science), rose up to challenge Latour to come up with a defense for being a relativist. Latour walked to the microphone and responded calmly “I am not a relativist” – and Roll-Hansen sank back to his seat.

A few weeks ago a colleague said in jest that it was “an aspect of Roll-Hansen’s Old World charm that he seems incapable of learning from his mistakes”. Roll-Hansen has namely again – along with Jon Elster (political scientist), Stig Frøland (professor of medicine), Nina Witoszek (writer and cultural historian) and others – risen up to publicly accuse Latour of being a relativist (actually, Witoszek’s critique is somewhat different, accusing Latour of being a Jacobite) and to protest his being honored (Elster 2013, Frøland 2013, Roll-Hansen 2013, Witoszek 2013). This time the honor is the 2013 Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize.

The Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize (or simply Holberg Prize) is the chief one of three prizes awarded each year out of the interest on the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund, which was established by the Norwegian government in 2003. The Holberg Prize is awarded to an individual who has “made outstanding contributions to the humanities, social sciences, law, or theology”. The prize consists of a memorial medal and 4.5 million Norwegian kroner (approximately €550,000). The 10 winners so far have been Julia Kristeva (2004), Jürgen Habermas (2005), Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (2006), Ronald Dworkin (2007), Fredric R. Jameson (2008), Ian Hacking (2009), Natalie Zemon Davis (2010), Jürgen Kocka (2011), Manuel Castells (2012), and now also Bruno Latour.

And, as has become almost as strong a tradition, the announcement of the winner has again triggered a flare-up of the so-called “Science Wars” with vociferous protests from Jon Elster and others. Elster protested the awards to Kristeva, Eisenstadt, Jameson, and now also Latour. Both in the case of Kristeva and again this year, Elster kicked off his protest by sending the Minister of Higher Education a copy of Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense, following up with a letter to the public in Norway’s main broadsheet newspaper, Aftenposten, this time concluding that the prize has been irreparably damaged by a reckless awards committee over the years and should now be shut down. The debate then washed back and forth for a time – garnering supporters and detractors, protestors and counter-protestors (e.g. Asdahl 2013, Bjørkdahl 2013) – before eventually subsiding until the next time someone anathema to Elster is awarded the prize.

Had I not decided to write a piece about this debate, I might well have ignored the various op ed articles and letters to the editor. “Ho hum and here we go again,” after all. They are so boringly predictable, and yet so adrenalin-triggeringly irritating, and I have no need for either boredom or irritation. But having given myself the challenge to review the debate, I decided to look for some literary trait in them to analyse, thus providing myself at once with both interest and distance.

What then struck me about the articles and letters was the number of dichotomies that appear in them. An incomplete list includes rational/irrational, true/false, new/old, human/non-human, nature/culture, consistent/inconsistent, and not least realist/relativist. And the dichotomies appear absolute: You’re either with us or against us. That places quite a burden on the simplification of texts, for scientists represent themselves in texts, as we know, and the articles and letters claim to have found these dichotomies by comparing Latour’s texts to those of others.

What further strikes me about these dichotomies is that they seem to be all aligned along a moral dimension, leaving no room for complexity or self-doubt. Given that Latour has been found to be a relativist (as is the dominant point of view among the prize protest pieces), then his ascription of agency to non-human actors must be a consequence of his relativism, stubbornly ignoring the fact that Nature is by nature independent of human will. Or too, the ascription of agency to non-humans could be a sign of inconsistency. Or it could be both (oddly enough). But whichever it is, it is clearly on the bad side of the good/bad dichotomy.

Witoszek sets up a different dichotomy – old/new. She claims that Latour, along with (she further claims) many other “French Jacobites” (her term), has simply attached new, catchy names to old concepts. This too makes him, in her opinion, undeserving of the prize, and thus on the bad side of the good/bad dichotomy.

Of course, this degree of simplification may be an artefact of the genre. These are short, polemic pieces. Perhaps there simply isn’t room for nuance or complexity. Still, I find it sad. So many texts read so narrowly, simply placing them along a series of binary divides and lining those up along an axis. What about the moments of humour in those texts? What about the puzzles, the complexities, even the self-contradictions? Such a boring way to read a text! But is it perhaps a human weakness? Are dichotomies some sort of archetypical trait in human thinking? And this leaves me doubly sad because it makes me wonder too what texts (and other text-like experiences) I myself read that way. Oh dear.

Asdal, Kristin (2013) Det er i laboratoriet det skjer [It all happens in the laboratory] Aftenposten 16.03.13, [accessed 20.06.13]
Bjørkdahl, Kristian (2013) Jon Elster bør pensjoneres [Jon Elster should be pensioned] Aftenposten 21.03.13, [accessed 20.06.13]
Elster, Jon (2013) Holbergprisen bør nedlegges [The Holberg Prize should be shut down] Aftenposten 21.03.13, [accessed 20.06.13]
Frøland, Stig S. (2013) Tåkeprat i ny tapning [Foggy reasoning in a new bottle] Morgenbladet 26.04.13, [accessed 20.06.13]
Roll-Hansen, Nils (2013) Latour som symptom [Latour as a symptom] Klassekampen 07.05.13, [accessed 20.06.13]
Witoszek, Nina (2013) Latour mon amour, eller opium for de intellektuelle [Latour mon amour or opium for the intellectuals] Morgenbladet 04.04.13 [accessed 20.06.13]