Why should we learn to map techno-scientific controversies?

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Why should we learn to map techno-scientific controversies? A quick glance at newspapers would be enough to answer this question. When science experts openly show their contribution, this is the phenomenon we are unexpectedly witnessing: the debate continues, nay it restarts even more heatedly. Just think of asbestos, GMOs, stem cells, discussions on the environmental impact of new motorways, SUVs in town and then you will notice experts’ remarkable inability to secure the end of the debate and “silence” anyone. Before getting indignant at such “widespread irrationality” and “loss of trust in experts”, we should acknowledge to what extent the spread of science and technology has turned us all into participants, whether voluntary or not, in large experiments, some of which take place on a planetary scale. Some participants are in the laboratory as researchers, some are backers, some act as witnesses, and finally some others act as guinea pigs. Whether it is about global warming, plans for unemployment, mobile phones, passive smoke, speed cameras, oil reserves or the European constitution, we all embark on experiments whose protocol might sometimes be sought in vain. As Peter Sloterdijk explains, the artificial and fragile globe we live in, requires the controversial participation of all its members. If scientific truth can no longer impose itself, this is not due to the irrational behaviour into which common people would have stumbled, rather, because people now act as co-researchers. If people entered a laboratory it was precisely to deny those truths that were trying to “impose” themselves with no discussion and to have them be down-and-out. In a word, indisputable facts are now questionable – all the better for rationality.

The problem is that we do not yet have the media, the reflexes, the tools, the mental habits that would put us at ease with facts that, from now on, are questionable. Still imbued with traditional epistemology, we turn to manuals just as if they were scientific catechisms. We are stunned when we realize we no longer have to get used to dogmas, but rather to controversies. Such freedom, such a free examination scandalizes us. We perceive this situation as a loss, rather than a gain. A famous spine surgeon suggested me a painful surgery. After surveying all the options available in Paris, I ventured to say to him that there were different versions of my illness, but he replied haughtily: “Sir, there are no different ‘versions’. You have been misinformed … “. This surgeon too thought truth should prevail; he thought that indisputable facts would have taken my back under his scalpel. Most fortunately, my back fully recovered thanks to a completely different “version”.

A new question therefore arises for all researchers, users, donors, private citizens, students or journalists: how to express the competing versions of the same techno-scientific issues that, on all interesting topics, require our attention and our deliberation? In other words, how to find an objectivity not based on silent admiration but on the whole range of contradictory opinions related to conflicting versions of the same stakes? How can we connect these versions so that we could be able to form an opinion of our own? Cartography of techno-scientific controversies, as I have defined it, must make this bet. Fortunately, new information techniques partly allow us to make up for the chaos of information, rumours, news these very same techniques had dipped us into in the first instance. A simple example can make us understand the importance of these media. A mother loses twice her young son: social workers, then police, then the court charge her with maltreatment and are ready to lock her up in jail, having the medical expert, delegated by the court, confirmed the charge. Though, the mapping of controversies reveals a far more contrasted landscape. British medical researchers use the term “shaken baby syndrome” to designate not a crime but a disease whose origin might be genetic. Consequently what is considered “truth” in France may be an error on the other side of the Channel. Are these two different versions? Absolutely! Should we wallow in relativism by returning the two versions back to back? Of course not, since it is possible to track down the Anglo-Saxon researchers today, to find their papers, determining their relative credibility and comparing this chart of competences to the French situation. Once the family mother is released from jail, who will ever dare say, that the power of science and reason had been superseded? Who will dare say that it would have been better to hide the respondent and her lawyers the existence of such controversial scientific area? We must get used to it: the demands of reason are far more complex than it seems. The prestige and interest of sciences rely on the possibility of being rightly discussed, not only by researchers. With techno-science spreading to all aspects of daily life, it is necessary for other media to prevent the untimely closure of what has become our common good.

Bruno Latour is professor and vice-president for research at Sciences Po Paris. He was born in 1947 in Beaune, Burgundy, from a wine grower family, was trained first as a philosopher and then an anthropologist. From 1982 to 2006, he has been professor at the Centre de sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and, for various periods, visiting professor at UCSD, at the London School of Economics and in the history of science department of Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated into many studies in science policy and research management.

Translated from French by Silvia Casini

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