At the beginning of AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE Bruno Latour recounts an anecdote to illustrate the new situation we find ourselves in today, at the end of the “modernist parenthesis”:
“They’re sitting around a table, some fifteen French industrialists responsible for sustainable development in various companies, facing a professor of climatology, a researcher from the Collège de France. It’s the fall of 2010; a battle is raging about whether the current climate disturbances are of human origin or not. One of the industrialists asks the professor a question I find a little cavalier: “But why should we believe you, any more than the others?” I’m astonished. Why does he put them on the same footing, as if it were a simple difference of opinion between this climate specialist and those who are called climate skeptics…?”
Latour wonders if the scientist will respond with a summary of the indisputable data leading to certain knowledge, but the response is a summary of
“the large number of researchers involved in climate analysis, the complex system for verifying data, the articles and reports, the principle of peer evaluation, the vast network of weather stations, floating weather buoys, satellites, and computers that ensure the flow of information… the pitfalls of the models that are needed to correct the data as well as the series of doubts that have had to be addressed on each of these points”.
No appeal to indubitable data or to certain knowledge, but to trust in the institution of science: “He sees no higher court of appeals”.
Latour recounts being shocked by the sceptical question of the industrialist, surprised at the lack of appeal to the certainty of expert knowledge, and favorably impressed by the scientist’s account of the research process and by his recourse to trust in the institution. He sees a shift in philosophy of science, in epistemology, in ontology, in this appeal to trust instead of to certainty and to the institution instead of to unmediated access. There is some complacence here as Latour finds that scientists have shifted from their Cartesian dogmatism and certainty to a Jamesian (and by implication Latourian) pragmatism. By implication it is Latour who won the “Science Wars”.
Yet Latour does not really explain why this change in behaviour has taken place. “The modernist parenthesis is at an end” is a rather vague explanatory hypothesis, itself in need of explanation. One problem is that the notion of modernism is defined in a variety of ways, such that its extension is quite vague. One definition of the moderns is: those for whom others have beliefs whereas they have knowledge. On this definition the modernist parenthesis goes back to Plato, or even to Moses. More often it is limited to Europe ASR (After the Scientific Revolution).
Latour’s explanation for the change in metaphysics that characterises the change of epoch is the gravity of the ecological crises that beset us. The value of Certainty leads to inflexibility, whereas the times require flexibility and fluidity under the value of Trust. But this notion of the epoch is ambiguous between an internal and an external version. Have the scientists themselves due to new research findings discovered that they must abandon their dogmatic rigidity and authoritarian tendencies? Or has the rise of a less credulous and less deferential attitude in all domains led scientists to revise their epistemology and their rhetorical strategies?
In the anecdote recounted by Latour we have a scientist being subjected to a cavalier question by an industrialist who has chosen to relay, according to Latour, the sort of objections that the climate sceptics use. The scientist replies philosophically, but why? One industrialist is easily snobbed and dismissed (unless he represents Big Money needed by the scientists or his colleagues). But many objections made in all sorts of venues from the TV to the classroom, from philosophical journals to SF novels may have played their part in tempering the expert’s attitude. This is the development of what Steve Fuller calls “protscience“, the urge towards a democratisation of science impelled by a sort of protestant revolution conducted by the users of science. This movement has had negative effects, such as making room for the naive or cynical climate sceptics and intelligent designers. But it has also had the positive effect of demanding more concrete explanations, of the type the climate expert gives in the anecdote, than just the assertion “Science says it is so”.
What I am arguing is that where Latour sees the sign of a new epoch in the scientist’s response, we can also see its sign in the industrialist’s question. No contradiction with Latour’s project, but a slight shift of emphasis. Perhaps he should integrate into each mode its own “PROT-”, so that we would have not just protscience but also protlaw, protanalysis, proteconomy and even protreligion (gnostics, hermeticists, alchemists included.)