Latour Sokal NYT

Alan Sokal writes:

I don’t know whether you saw the NYT Magazine’s fawning profile of
sociologist of science Bruno Latour about a month ago.

I wrote to the author, and later to the editor, to critique the gross lack of balance (and even of the most minimal fact-checking). No reply. So I posted my critique on my webpage.

From that linked page from Sokal:

The basic trouble with much of Latour’s writings—as with those of some other sociologists and philosophers of a “social constructivist” bent—is that (as Jean Bricmont and I [Sokal] pointed out already in 1997)

these texts are often ambiguous and can be read in at least two distinct ways: a “moderate” reading, which leads to claims that are either worth discussing or else true but trivial; and a “radical” reading, which leads to claims that are surprising but false. Unfortunately, the radical interpretation is often taken not only as the “correct” interpretation of the original text but also as a well-established fact (“X has shown that …”) . . .

numerous ambiguous texts that can be interpreted in two different ways: as an assertion that is true but relatively banal, or as one that is radical but manifestly false. And we cannot help thinking that, in many cases, these ambiguities are deliberate. Indeed, they offer a great advantage in intellectual battles: the radical interpretation can serve to attract relatively inexperienced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous interpretation.

Sokal offers a specific example.

First, he quotes the NYT reporter who wrote:

When [Latour] presented his early findings at the first meeting of the newly established Society for Social Studies of Science, in 1976, many of his colleagues were taken aback by a series of black-and-white photographic slides depicting scientists on the job, as though they were chimpanzees. It was felt that scientists were the only ones who could speak with authority on behalf of science; there was something blasphemous about subjecting the discipline, supposedly the apex of modern society, to the kind of cold scrutiny that anthropologists traditionally reserved for “premodern” peoples.

Sokal responds:

In reality, it beggars belief to imagine that sociologists of science—whose entire raison d’être is precisely to subject the social practice of science to “cold scrutiny”—could possibly think that “scientists were the only ones who could speak with authority on behalf of science”. Did you bother to seek confirmation of this self-serving claim from anyone present at that 1976 meeting, other than Latour himself?

Sokal continues in his letter to the NYT reporter:

In the same way, you faithfully reproduce Latour’s ambiguities concerning the notion of “fact”:

It had long been taken for granted, for example, that scientific facts and entities, like cells and quarks and prions, existed “out there” in the world before they were discovered by scientists. Latour turned this notion on its head. In a series of controversial books in the 1970s and 1980s, he argued that scientific facts should instead be seen as a product of scientific inquiry. …

In your article you take for granted that Latour’s view is correct: indeed, a few paragraphs later you say that Latour showed “that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures”. But, like Latour, you never explain in what sense the traditional view—that cells and quarks and prions existed “out there” in the world before they were discovered by scientists—is mistaken.

I’m with Sokal: Scientific facts are real. Their discovery, expression, and (all too often) misrepresentation are the product of human procedures, but the facts and entities exist.

As Sokal discusses, the whole thing is slippery, as can be seen even in the brief discussion excerpted above. If you give Latour’s statements a minimalist interpretation—the concepts of “cells,” “quarks,” etc. are human-constructed—there’s really no problem. Yes, the phenomena described by our concepts of cells, quarks, etc. are real and would exist even if humans had never appeared on the Earth, but one could imagine completely different ways of expressing and formulating models for these scientific facts, in forms that might look nothing like “cells” and “quarks.” Just as one can, for example, express classical mechanics with or without the concept of “force.”

And, of course, if you want to go further, there’s lots of apparent scientific facts that, it seems, are simply human-created mistakes: I’m thinking here of examples such as recent studies of ESP, himmicanes, air rage, beauty and sex ratio, etc.

So Latour’s general perspective is valuable. But Sokal argues, convincingly to me, that much of the reading of Latour, including in that news article, takes the strong view, what might be called the postmodern view, which throws the baby of replicable science out with the bathwater of contingent theories.

Sokal writes:

If Latour had really shown that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures, then the critics’ charge would be unfair. But in reality Latour had not shown anything of the sort; he had simply asserted it, and many others (not cited by you) had criticized those assertions. Of course, it goes without saying that scientists’ beliefs (and assertions of alleged fact) about the external world are the product of all-too-human procedures — that is true and utterly banal. But Latour’s claims are nothing more than deliberate confusion between two senses of the word “fact” (namely, the usual one and his own idiosyncratic one). . . . muddying the distinction between facts and assertions of fact undermines our ability to think clearly about this crucial psychological/sociological/political problem.

Sokal continues with his correspondence with the New York Times (they eventually replied after he sent them several emails).

Just to be clear here, I don’t think there are any villains in this story.

Latour has a goofy view of science, and I agree with Sokal that his (Latour’s) expressions of his ideas are a bit slippery—but, hey, Latour entitled to express his views, and you gotta give him credit for being influential. Latour’s successes must in some part be a consequence of previous gaps or at least underemphasized points in discussions of science.

The author of the NYT article, Ava Kofman, found a good story and ran with it. I agree with Sokal that she missed the point—or, to put it another way, that she might well be doing a good job telling the story of Latour, she’s not doing a good job telling the story of Latour’s ideas. But, that’s not quite her job: even if, as the saying goes, Latour’s work “contains much that is original and much that is correct; unfortunately that which is correct is not original, and that which is original is not correct,” Kofman is not really writing about this; she’s writing more about Latour’s influence.

The ironic thing, though, is that Kofman’s article is following the standard template of feature stories about a scientist or academic, which is to treat him as a hero. If there’s one idea that Latour stands for, it’s that scientists are part of a social process, and it misses the point to routinely treat them as misunderstood geniuses.

Anyway, although I share Sokal’s annoyance that the author of an article on Latour missed key aspects of Latour’s ideas and then didn’t even reply to his thoughtful criticism, I can understand why the reporter wants to move on to her next project. In my experience, journalists are more forward-looking than academics: we worry about our past errors, they just move on. It’s a different style, perhaps deriving from the difference between traditional publication in bound volumes and publication in fishwrap.

Finally, perhaps there’s not much the NYT editors can do at this point. Newspapers, and for that matter scientific journals, rarely run corrections even of clear factual errors—at least, that’s been my experience. So I can’t blame them too much for following common practice.

Ultimately, this all comes down to questions of emphasis and interpretation. Latour has, for better or worse, expressed ideas that have been influential in the sociology of science; his story is interesting and worth a magazine article; writing a story with Latour as hero leads to some confusion about what is understood by others in that field. In that sense it’s not so different from a story in the sports or business pages that presents a contest from one side. That’s a journalistic convention, and that’s fine, and it’s also fine for someone such as Sokal who has a different perspective (one that I happen to agree with) to share that too.

As Sokal puts it:

The ironic thing is that Latour has spent his life decrying (and rightly so) the scientist-as-hero approach to the presenting science to the general public; but here is an article that takes an extreme version of the same approach, albeit applied to a sociologist/philosopher rather than a scientist.

A newspaper or magazine article about a thinker should not merely be a fawning and uncritical celebration of his brilliance; it should also discuss his ideas. Indeed, this article does purport to explain and discuss Latour’s ideas, not just his personal story; but it does so in a completely uncritical way, not even letting on that there might be people who have cogent critiques of his ideas. That, it seems to me, is a gross failure of balance—and more importantly, a gross abdication of the newspaper’s mission to inform its readers about important subjects. (In this case, a subject that has serious real-world consequences.) Not to mention the gross lack of elementary fact-checking that I pointed out.

Of course, one could also question whether the “hero” mode of writing is appropriate even on the sports or business pages. This mode of writing presents a contest from one side only; and it is not very often the case in sports or business that there is in fact only one side.

So, yeah, the NYT article was not so bad as feature articles go—it told an engaging story from one particular perspective—but there was an opportunity to do better. Hence Sokal’s post, and this post linking to it.

P.S. Hey, the name Bruno Latour rings a bell . . . Unfortunately, he didn’t make it out of the first round of our seminar speaker competition.

19 thoughts on “Latour Sokal NYT

  1. > difference between traditional publication in bound volumes and publication in fishwrap.
    But reporters are working outside of the discipline they are writing about – not inside. Why worry about past errors in an area you seldom work in?

  2. Hey, maybe it’s time for another tournament?
    Reading over comments for last tournaments, I miss that one.
    Maybe a tournament with new contestants and the winner will be able to challenge last tournament winner?
    What do you think?

  3. I think you let reporters and editors off far too easily. Heck, just the other day, the NYT “reported” this: “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank run by the world’s most advanced nations, recently concluded that the global economy would expand by 3.5 percent next year, down from 3.7 percent this year. Yet in declaring that ‘the global expansion has peaked,’ the brains at the O.E.C.D. effectively concluded that the current situation is as good as it gets before the next pause or downturn.”

    So, the fact that the global economy is projected to continue to grow, but at a slower rate, means that “the current situation is as good as it gets”? And this if from the NYT’s “European economics correspondent.”

    Editors and reporters need to be held to a higher standard, IMHO.

  4. About the only thing I can give Latour credit for is learning about the Greek sophists in college and making a career out of parroting their arguments without attribution.

  5. Apparently you can make a good living in academia by obfuscating difference between scientific facts and assertions. In some disciplines, the perceived distance between facts and assertions seems small; in others, not so much. For main stream media to gain trust regarding science, they need to strive to be rigorous and nuanced when covering scientific assertions. In my opinion, they are sorely lacking. For example, this article casually grouped “climate skeptics” with junk scientists. Climate skeptics include climate scientists that have reservations about the mainstream climate prediction models. They might very well turn out to be wrong, but they base their skepticism on their understanding of the climate science and models. As a layperson that wants to know more about climate change, how could I trust media that group them with flat-earthers and creationists to report on climate science with precision and nuance?

  6. I’ve run into this phenomenon a couple of times.

    A tenured faculty member will give a talk “challenging entrenched orthodoxies” with the attitude that they are bravely “speaking truth to power” by struggling against powerful reactionary vested interests. In reality, though, they are making tepid statements that few in the audience disagree with. (One considered himself brave for expressing strong environmental beliefs.)

    These episodes are quite funny because the speakers take great delight in posing as brave revolutionaries taking dangerous stands when they are actually entrenched bureaucrats with tenured sinecures in a sea of like-minded academics. It is always 1952 for these people.

  7. The NYT quote says Latour made a “controversial” argument that conventional wisdom was wrong. This is a polite way of saying that Latour held an eccentric minority view.

    Sokal is off-base saying that it assumes that Latour is correct.

    The reality of quarks is not so clear, because they do not exist in isolation. Even when Gell-Mann got the Nobel prize for discovering quarks, he refused to say that they were real particles. (I think he later claimed that he thought that they were real all along.)

    • Roger:

      Describing a different theoretical argument as “held an eccentric minority view” is an attempt to sway with emotional language to combat an argument without logic and reason but instead with derision. The decision by the NYT to use language that did not do this was not only appropriate but was a better description of reality.

  8. His jargon might be very embarrassing, but a lot of his success is well deserved; basically, he pushed sociologists to be be more empirical.

    Sure, sociologists should study how institutions, power, money, etc., relate to science. But they should also study what scientists actually do: (1) How they record, filter, aggregate, and transform data; (2) How they collaborate with “outsiders” in order to construct necessary tools, laboratories, and even “test subjects” (e.g. lab rats); (3) How they transform data into a strong arguments that will make their peers agree with them.

    As I understand all of this, his most controversial claim was that “Nature” doesn’t settle the disputes between scientists. Why? Because we only know what “Nature” is *after* the scientists have agreed upon the evidence. So a claim becomes a “fact” because it has survived the scrutiny of scientists; it doesn’t become a fact because it was “already out there in the world” (but hopefully this is also the case).

    Many scientists will agree with Sokal when he says this is just “true and utterly banal”. I also don’t think this has any real implications for scientific practice. But at least it’s not wrong.

  9. This kind of thing has been called “motte and bailey” doctrine, in reference to medieval castles: the motte (metaphor for a defensible position) is the big tower in the middle, and the bailey (metaphor for an extreme, indefensible position) is the surrounding productive fields. A medieval lord would spend most of their economic activity in the bailey (activist/ideologue/maverick spends a lot of time making extreme provocative remarks) but, when an enemy approached (critics attack these statements) they retreated to the motte (respond that what they really meant was this much more limited, more reasonable and defensible claim). Then once the enemy went away (no longer under pressure from critics) the medieval lord returned to the bailey (activist/ideologue/maverick goes right back to making the same extreme remarks).

    All in All, Another Brick in the Motte

    The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology

  10. Once again, the NYT comes out looking poorly.

    This being said, with all due respect to Sokal, it’s not like the NYT owes him an explanation. Journalists receive every day hundreds of emails from people who don’t like some aspect of what they wrote. It’s simply not feasible to follow up with everybody. The fact that Sokal is famous or an academic does mean that he has a right to receive an explanation. It seems to me that he could have directly put his concern on his website and publicized it that way, without the emails with the passive aggressive subject line “your profile of Bruno Latour (TRYING AGAIN)”.

    • Mic:

      There are two ways of looking at this.

      One way to look at it is that neither the author of the NYT article nor the editor has no obligation to reply to or even acknowledge Sokal’s email, let alone to engage with his arguments. I agree that they have no such obligation.

      The other way to look at it is that someone wrote a long article for the NYT about Latour and kinda missed the point. Sokal gave the author of the article an opportunity to reassess, but she did not take that opportunity. That’s too bad: what’s the point of writing a long article about an intellectual and then not engaging with an expert (the point is not that Sokal is “famous or an academic” but rather that he’s knowledgeable in particular about the philosophy of science) who pointed out specific problems with that news article. I agree with that perspective too.

      P.S. I’m not a big fan of the term “passive aggressive.” Sokal was annoyed and he expressed that annoyance with an email. I don’t see anything particularly passive about it.

  11. Setting aside the context of this post and cutting to the actual philosophy, I’m going to have to side with Wittgenstein, Rorty and Latour and their forebears on this one:

    > It had long been taken for granted, for example, that scientific facts and entities, like cells and quarks and prions, existed “out there” in the world before they were discovered by scientists. Latour turned this notion on its head. In a series of controversial books in the 1970s and 1980s, he argued that scientific facts should instead be seen as a product of scientific inquiry.

    Let’s take an example close to home. Are probabilities “real”? Is that coin’s 50% chance of landing heads “out there” in the world or is it merely the degree to which we as limited humans can predict the future? I think John Stuart Mill summed this up the best,

    > We must remember that the probability of an event is not a quality of the event itself, but a mere name for the degree of ground which we, or some one else, have for expecting it. … Every event is in itself certain, not probable; if we knew all, we should either know positively that it will happen, or positively that it will not. But its probability to us means the degree of expectation of its occurrence, which we are warranted in entertaining by our present evidence. — Mill, John Stuart. 1882. A System of Logic: Raciocinative and Inductive. Eighth edition. Part III, Chapter 18.

    I’d recommend Richard Rorty for a more contemporary take on many of the same ideas—that all of our concepts are human derived and only useful insofar as they are practical. That 95% chance of rain predicted by the meteorologist is useful for me in deciding what to plan for the day, even if it’s not “real” in the sense that it’s going to rain or not rain. Science doesn’t have any privileged position here in terms of conceptual concreteness. But it may have an advantage in creating practically useful concepts due to its methodology.

    As an exercise, think about how human-defined the notion of planet is. It’s just a useful taxonomy for putting celestial bodies in boxes to reason about them more easily. That doesn’t make our classification system “real” in any sense.

    • Interesting. I think I have some agreement and some disagreement with what you say.

      I agree that the notion of planet is human-defined. But I think that it also has an “out there” component. That is, the things we consider classifying as planets or not are “out there”, but our way of classifying them is indeed human-defined.

      In discussing the coin’s probability of landing on heads: I would say that this probability is “out there”– but that we can’t reasonably say what the probability is. For example, the probability might be different in the future from what is now. (For example, the coin could have some “collision” with another object that changes its probability of coming up heads.) So I would say that the probability of the coin’s landing a certain way is a function of the coin, the event (heads, tails, on edge, disintegrated, …), and time (where time is a proxy for whatever things have happened to the coin up to that time).

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