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  • Demonstration and Democracy
  • Arkady Plotnitsky
Review of: Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.

Scientists are becoming more attentive to and are addressing more openly the relationships between politics and science. (Many scientists have of course—at least since Galileo, if not Archimedes or even the pre-Socratics—been aware of and had to confront the complexity of these relationships.) As I am writing this review, I am reading a commentary by Roger A. Pielke Jr., “Science Policy: Policy, Politics, and Perspective,” in the current issue of Nature (28 March 2002), dealing with these relationships in their, I would argue, postmodern specificity, as does Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope. The timing of the Nature article could not be more auspicious for this review, but other examples, articles, and books, technical and popular, are not hard to come by.

It is difficult to say to what degree this increased attention is specifically due to the influence of what is known as science studies or social, or sometimes social-constructivist, studies of science, a controversial field that has emerged during the last several decades and to which Latour’s work largely belongs. It is also not altogether clear how much this attention was influenced by the controversies themselves around science studies, most recently the so-called “Science Wars.” The latter followed the appearance of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (1994), theoretical physicist Alan Sokal’s hoax article published in the journal Social Text (1995), and Impostures intellectueles (1998), co-authored by Sokal and another theoretical physicist, Jean Bricmont, first published in France, and then in England and the U.S., under the title Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1998). Latour has been a prominent subject of and participant in the Science Wars debates, beginning with Gross and Levitt’s book, and through Latour’s responses to his critics, including those in Pandora’s Hope (some among the essays included in the book have been published earlier). Some of these debates have been conducted in scientific journals, such as Nature and Physics Today, and have involved leading scientists. Accordingly, they may have had an impact (it is, again, difficult to say how large) on the proliferating discussions of the relationships between politics and science in the scientific community. It would be hard, however, to underestimate other factors involved, from increasing competition for funding to the problems of bioethics; these may indeed be the more significant ones.

Be that as it may, Latour’s work and arguments, as presented in the book, could help scientists and others who want to understand the complexity, “the Gordian knot,” as Latour called it in his earlier We Have Never Been Modern, of the postmodern entanglement of politics and science. Indeed, the three problem phenomena invoked by the Nature article just cited, under the fitting heading “Gridlock”—“global climate change,” “nuclear power,” and “biodiversity” (367)—are paradigmatically Latourian, and the first is specifically invoked by him in We Have Never Been Modern. That need not mean that scientists or others must agree with Latour’s analysis (the present author does not always either). But they might do well to engage with it properly, or at least to stay with it for more than a sentence or two, the usual limit of most “science warriors,” which also applies to other postmodernists they “read.” I am not sure how much hope—this may be a kind of Pandora’s hope in turn—one might hold here, and sometimes the Pandora’s-box nature of these works, Latour’s included, complicates their chances. I am not sure that humanists, especially historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science, will always give Latour the chance he deserves either. I hope they will.

Beyond serving as a useful introduction to the current stage of science studies and as a commentary on the Science Wars (and it is, again, worth reading for the sake of these subjects alone), Pandora’s Hope pursues, with many notable successes, at least three ambitious and interconnected tasks. The first is to redefine the concept of...

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