Central Question 3

Question: Bruno Latour brought the nonhuman to the fore in STS. What would it mean to live in a non-anthropocentric world that privileges the nonhuman over the human in the production of scientific knowledge?

For example, the practice of contemporary science depends on modern laboratories equipped with highly technical equipment and complicated processes requiring experts to operate them. What is more, Latour claims that laboratories are equipped with the capacity to “define” reality. With this in mind, when sociologists turned their gaze towards the “hard” sciences, they went into a practice of science-in-the-making, operating at the fringes of scientific research. More specifically, they entered within a context where initial experimental results were ambiguous; thus, prone to different interpretations. In this context, Helen Longino suggests that the human brain cannot account for the totality of our (fallible) sense experience. As our conscious mind processes a limited amount of information at any given moment; we filter, edit, and transform our experience into a mental representation (a map) anchored by our background assumptions. Furthermore, what Longino is probably arguing is that this mental representation is never an exact replica of the map made by someone else experiencing the same information. Therefore, ‘objective’ production of knowledge hinges, not on the individual, but on a scientific thought collective.

For one thing, in his book Science in Action Bruno Latour (1987) made visible the excruciating competition between the research teams of Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally in the race for the discovery of the structure of growth hormones. For instance, the scientific community settled in Guillemin’s favor after Schally’s version lost support. To be sure, competing experimental results are eventually settled, but scientists do not disclose the process of settling the dispute. Equally significant, the end product conceals the actual epistemological nature involved in the closure mechanism. However, Latour elucidates how competing experimental results are subject to intricate negotiations: definitely involving scientists, but also, funding agencies, science-based industries, suppliers of laboratory equipment, and especially, nonhuman actors as part of the negotiating parties. To this end, according to Latour, the laboratory is a site where ‘facts’ are constructed; even more startling, where nature plays a minimum role.

Re-examining Central Question 3

After the class discussion, perhaps an alternate question would have been: How do we wrestle with the process of ‘knowing’ and ‘learning’ about the complexity and inherent dynamics of the modern practice of science? Or maybe, I could have tightly coupled my question to the process of ‘emergence’, thus revealing the intricate nature of the practice of science as it unfold through the wider lens of history.

However, I think this is a good question because a non-anthropocentric world presupposes the pervasive ‘technification’ of the contemporary practice of science. A key contribution of the social study of past scientific practices is the benefit of ‘hindsight’ – Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) challenges your thinking, and for the most part, you start paying attention and start seeing things differently, such as when ANT brings the non-human to the fore. Likewise, we gain ‘insight’ when scientific disputes are settled during the study of science-in-the-making involving laboratories equipped with highly technical equipment and complicated processes of experimentation. Overall, ANT provides a framework for understanding the interplay of human and non-human actors and, equally important, how complex heterogeneous networks emerge.

This leads to what is fundamentally germane to the point of my question: Where are we heading with the pervasive use of more and more powerful technology in the production of scientific knowledge? Moreover, if we purchase Latour’s proposition of "science is politics by other means" then it becomes evident the need of a framework for evaluating and understanding the dynamics of power relationships involved. Correspondingly, what type of agency humans may have to effect change, in particular, in a society with science and technology at its core?

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