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Review: Surely You Are Joking, Monsieur Latour!

Reviewed Work(s): Science in Action by Bruno Latour

Review by: Olga Amsterdamska
Source: Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 495-504
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/689826
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Surely You Are Joking, Monsieur Latour!

Science in Action, by Bruno Latour. Milton Keynes: Open University Press:

1987, 274 pp. $25.00. Also available in paper from Harvard University
Press, $12.95.

In reviewing his book, if I were to adopt Bruno Latour's ideas about science, I
would certainly ignore its contents and avoid interpreting it. Instead, I would have to
consider what he does in order to "weaken [his] enemies, paralyse those [he] cannot
weaken, help [his] allies if they are attacked, ensure safe communications with those
who supply [him] with indisputable instruments, oblige [his] enemies to fight one
another" (p. 37). To write a science in action review of Science in Action would mean
that instead of asking what this book teaches us about science, about the production
of scientific knowledge, or about the organization of the scientific community, I would
have to examine how this book is being used by others. I would have to assume that
until it is read, it does not even exist and that the issue of whether it is correct or not
depends entirely on how it is read. Reviewing Latour's book in his own terms would
mean that I would never ask whether his questions are pertinent or his problems well
posed; instead, I would have to consider whose spokesperson he is, whose "obligatory
translation passage" he has become, and how many allies he has already enrolled.
But, although the responsibility to review this book is worrisome, I will not try to
examine the strength, length, or composition of his network but will focus instead on
his arguments, his problems, and his solutions. In doing so, I will assume that Latour
himself is trying to understand what science is and how it works rather than trying to
win a war or to control and dominate others. Moreover, I will try to interpret Science
in Action as accurately as I can, even though its author gives me his permission to
make it say whatever I want and assures me that "all deformations are fair" (p. 40).
Science in Action is ostensibly written as a guide for nonscientists. In an attempt
to demystify science, Latour employs a naive, lay observer who encounters scientific
texts, follows scientists to their laboratories and into the field, and accompanies them
in their attempts to secure the support of others. In the Cartesian tradition of funda-
mental doubt, the bewildered layman becomes a rhetorical anthropologist whose
questioning, undistorted by received views and prejudices, will allow us, the readers,
to grasp the underlying principles of science.

Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15 No. 4, Fall 1990 495-504
? 1990 Sage Publications, Inc.


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496 Science, Technology, & Human Values

History has taught us, of course, that no one has ever succeeded in creating a truly
naive "naive outsider," and Latour's "dissenter" is no exception. Even though he has
had to "abandon knowledge about knowledge" (p. 7), he certainly has not forgotten
what war and politics are all about; and equipped with this Machiavellian view of the
world around him, he attempts to interpret science in the only terms he knows. So,
where others see reasoned arguments or evidence or interpretation or experiments,
Latour's outsider sees only attempts to dominate, strategies for winning battles, means
of attack, trials of strength, and other forms of violence. Moreover, in his attempts to
represent science, he is also quite willing to employ some very peculiar means and
arguments in order to try to enroll us in his vision of science.
The travels of the "naive outsider" begin when, in his effort to understand "science
in the making," he attempts to follow some controversies. Selecting bits of arguments,
the outsider notices that as people disagree with one another, they surround the
statements they make with either positive or negative modalities and that when they
agree, these modalities disappear. This allows him to define facts as those statements
that are stripped of all modalities, that is, those "devoid of any trace of ownership,
construction, time and place" (p. 23). Since in any debate-scientific or not-state-
ments made by others are either surrounded with modalities or not, the outsider
concludes, "A sentence may be made more of a fact or more of an artefact depending
on how it is inserted into other sentences" (p. 25). Latour's first principle is a direct
consequence of this observation; it states, "The fate of facts and machines is in later
users' hands; their qualities are thus a consequence, not a cause, of a collective action"
(p. 259). Since this appears to be one of the most direct proofs of social constructivism,
let us examine it more closely.
The argument about facts has the following structure:

1. A fact is a statement that is devoid of any modalities.

2. When a statement is collectively treated as a fact, it is stripped of modalities.
3. Treating a statement as a fact causes it to be a fact.

This is an impeccable argument as long as we remember Latour 's initial definition of

a fact. When we do remember this initial definition, the conclusion states only that
deleting modalities from a statement causes it to be a nonmodalized statement. The
problem is that in the book, the definition of a fact and the interesting conclusion
Latour is able to draw from it are separated by examples of various scientific and
political debates about hormones, MX weapons, and fuel cells, and by discussions
about the construction of machines. Trying to disentangle Latour's byzantine num-
bered sentences from three different controversies, and encouraged along by Latour's
passing references to the truth values of statements that are being either believed or
disbelieved, most of us, I suspect, by the time we encounter Latour's ingenious
conclusion, no longer consider a fact to be any unmodalized statement, but instead
define a fact commonsensically as a statement that is believed to be true of the world.
And, while I am quite willing to agree with Latour that the removal of modalities
causes the removal of modalities, I am much less eager to accede to his claim that the

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Book Review 497

removal of modalities-even a collective removal of modalities-is a cause and not

a consequence of either a statement's being true of the world or of anybody's belief
that a statement is true of the world. I would not like to exclude the possibility that
one of these days Latour will be able to convince me that nothing is either fact or
fiction but talking makes it so, but for the moment I am afraid his demonstration of
the extraordinary powers of language leaves much to be desired.
There are two reasons why I have tried to reconstruct Latour's argument about
facts in such detail. First, the principle that "the fate of facts is in later users' hands"
is so fundamental to Latour's study that the entire book could be considered its
elaboration; second, the method of argumentation used in this case is used by Latour
repeatedly throughout the book.
The most fundamental assumption underlying Latour's first principle is that we
are unable to make any distinctions between things and their representations: Things
are what we collectively represent them to be, nothing more and nothing less.
Accordingly, a true statement is a statement we express as true, nature is what we
collectively represent as nature, a fact is what we collectively express as a factual
proposition. No other conditions need to be met.'
These statements serve as undeclared premises for many of Latour's most provoc-
ative propositions. It is from such premises that Latour manages to derive statements
that appear revolutionary and innovative because of our linguistic habit of distinguish-
ing between things and ideas about things but that, on closer inspection, turn out to
be merely tautologies. In fact, Latour is so adept at this procedure that he quite often
succeeds in deriving two tautologies from the same premise in a way that makes them
appear contradictory.
Many examples of this are easy to track down because they are uttered by a
two-faced Janus representing the old "ready-made science" and the young "science
in the making." For example, the two mouths of Janus make the following two
statements, which Latour presents as contradictory: The old Janus says, "When things
are true they hold," while the young Janus counters with, "When things hold they start
becoming true" (p. 12). Latour maintains that "things hold" when controversies are
closed and people no longer question the facts. But, if things are true when people
state they are true, and things hold when people no longer question them, then the old
Janus is simply stating that "when people state that something is true, they no longer
question it," while the young Janus bravely contradicts him by declaring that "when
people no longer question something, they start believing it to be true." The appear-
ance of a contradiction between the two statements, and our impression that the young
Janus is saying something rather new and daring, both stem from the fact that we
generally do not think that true statements are simply and exclusively those statements
we state as being true (or those we do not argue about).
The last example of this reasoning that I will discuss here-though many more
can be found-is contained in Latour's discussion of relativism and realism. First, as
a careful reading of his third rule of method makes clear, Latour assumes that there
is no difference between Nature and the representation of Nature. The principle states,
"Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the

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498 Science, Technology, & Human Values

consequence, we can never use the outcome-Nature-to explain how and why a
controversy has been settled" (p. 99, italics added; also note the subtle shift here from
representation to the thing itself, Nature). Latour repeatedly uses the terms Natures
voice or Nature (pp. 94-100), as if nature were "something out there, independent of
our representations." Finally, he presents us with the double-faced Janus. The old face
asserts conventionally that "Nature is the cause that allowed controversies to be
settled," while the young face makes the more radical claim that "Nature will be the
consequence of the settlement" (p. 99). But if nature is what we collectively represent
nature to be, then, of course, it is the case that "a shared representation of Nature is
the cause that allowed controversies to be settled," and that "a shared representation
of nature will be the consequence of the settlement of a controversy (about that
representation)." Not only is there nothing contradictory between these two state-
ments, but all they manage to say is that the egg is the cause of the chicken, and the
chicken is the cause of the egg. The causal terminology in this old riddle is no more
peculiar than Latour's use of causal terminology. Parenthetically, let me remark that
in a recent publication on reflexivity, Latour rejects all causal explanations and asserts
that "the belief in causes and effect is always, in some sense, the admiration for a
chain of command or the hatred of a mob looking for someone to stone." 2 I gather
from the same article that being self-contradictory is something to be admired, but
still I would like to ask whether the omnipresence of a causal vocabulary in Science
in Action is a sign of Latour's admiration for chains of command, or is it only a
reflection of his desire to stone someone?
Latour's mode of argument succeeds only because he shifts deftly back and forth
from the language of representation to the language of "reality." This shifting also
allows him to make statements that are not concealed tautologies but that make-as
far as I can see-precious little sense. For example, Latour argues that by making
decisions to proceed with the building of a machine on the basis of certain arguments,
we not only make it more likely that the machine will be built, but we also make the
arguments we used "more right." The problem with Latour's formulation is that it
makes it impossible for anyone ever to proceed on wrong premises. If you manage
to convince others that we should be building fuel cells because they are more
efficient, then by that very act you have not only increased the chances that fuel cells
will be built and that their efficiency will eventually be tested, but you have also by
some mysterious power made the statement, "fuel cells are more efficient," "more
right." Now there is obviously a sense in which we often test propositions by
examining whether or not their consequences hold. But it is by no means the case that
every action based on a given premise increases the correctness of this premise.
Testing the validity of a statement is not a matter of discovering whether people have
adopted this statement as the basis for their behavior. For example, when, on the
assumption that trams are faster than buses, 1 decide that going home on a tram will
be faster than taking a bus, I do not believe even for a moment that by making such
a decision I have made my initial assumption more likely to have been right; and I do
not see why, when scientists decide to build a particular kind of computer on the
assumption that such a computer could be faster, more efficient, or cheaper, they

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Book Review 499

necessarily make these assumptions "more right," even if, at the end o
they have managed to redefine what they consider to be efficient, fast, o
(Let me add that this is a very pernicious sort of logic, for it allows us to
the South African government's belief that Blacks are inferior serves a
the policy of apartheid, by this very fact it somehow becomes "more r
on the basis of certain assumptions does not necessarily influence our
these assumptions as either true or false, even if the action thus
successful. Incidentally, it should be clear that this problem has noth
how far we are willing to go in relativizing to particular groups or cultur
of statements or methods. It does, however, have a lot to do with our u
using such words as right, correct, or true, and with our general i
changing and culturally specific they may be, about testing or ascertainin
of statements.
Deciphering Latour's logical and verbal pyrotechnics might be fun, because he is
indeed an adept rhetorician. But rather than continuing to follow this maze, I would
like to turn to one of his genuinely and not just apparently innovative propositions,
and to ask what kind of understanding of science we attain when we adopt his
suggestion to, as he puts it, "consider symmetrically the efforts to enroll human and
non-human resources" (p. 258). Latour entreats us to consider science and technology
as a heterogeneous network and to abandon all distinctions between humans and
nonhumans; between nature, culture, and society; between science and technology;
between what used to be called the knowing subject and the various objects of
scientific inquiry; between science as a body of knowledge and science as the
collective practice of a group; and, of course, between science and its context. Briefly
summarized, Latour's network theory of science and technology treats research as a
kind of war whose only objective is domination. Winning the "proof race" consists
of establishing networks consisting of a large number of allies whose behavior one
can control so as to "make dissent impossible" (p. 103). Networks emerge when both
"human and non-human resources" are enrolled and the scientist becomes an "oblig-
atory translation passage" for a heterogeneous group of allies. The more allies one
has managed to enroll, and the stronger the links one has established among them,
the more difficult it becomes for others to challenge one's domination.
Latour argues that in order to enroll "non-human" resources so as to make them
part of a network, scientists generate new objects in their laboratories, submit them
to "trials of strength," and by winning these confrontations become their spokesper-
sons. Similarly, to enroll "human allies" one has to make them interested and to control
their behavior. These people one has enrolled may be industrialists who commit
resources for a particular project, government officials who fund research, social
groups who are convinced to act on the basis of scientists' findings or inventions, or
scientists' colleagues who use a claim or machine for purposes of further research;
but these differences are irrelevant to Latour as long as all these actors-human and
nonhuman-are caught in the network, making it longer and stronger. In fact, Latour
argues that it is unimportant to examine either the characteristics of the nodes of the
network or the nature of the alliances; "the only question that really matters,"

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500 Science, Technology, & Human Values

according to Latour, is "is this new association weaker or stronger than that one"
(p. 127).
It is not easy to reconcile Latour's realism with his constructivism. The essentially
realist idea that scientists are engaged in a kind of war with natural objects, in which
they can either succeed or fail in the trial of strength with a particular object of
research, is not easily compatible with his constructivist and relativist notion that the
fate of claims (or objects or machines) is in the hands of later users. But even if it
were possible to reconcile these two notions by formulating some moderate version
of constructivism (which I am pretty sure would be unacceptable to Latour), what- if
anything-do we gain by denying all the traditional distinctions, treating both people
and the objects of research as "actors," and replacing all conceivable relations among
people and things by the single concept of enrollment?
Let us look at some of Latour's own examples. Why did Watson and Crick succeed
where Pauling failed? Because Watson and Crick created a stronger network by
enrolling more people who were unable to break the links between DNA and Watson
and Crick. Pauling's strategy for enrolling others obviously failed when Watson and
Crick discovered that despite his reputation and his powerful friends, they could break
the links between the three strands of his DNA model with a bit of "freshmen
chemistry." Latour cannot even address the question of why the links between Watson
and Crick and their DNA model resisted all attempts to sever them, while "freshman
chemistry" was stronger than a Nobel Prize winner, because we are not supposed to
be interested in the nature of alliances but only in their strength and because, in any
case, these alliances have no intrinsic qualities at all.
Why did Rontgen manage to establish the existence of X rays while Blondlot failed
to establish the existence of N rays? Because Rontgen built a strong and lengthy
network and nobody was able to sever the links between him and his rays. On the
other hand, Blondlot's network was destroyed by Robert Wood when he, as Latour
puts it, "severed the solid links that attached Blondlot to the N-rays." Obviously, since
Wood was able to sever these links, they must not have been very strong; but the
question of what made them weak is out of order.
Why did Koch fail to develop a vaccine against tuberculosis while Pasteur
succeeded in developing a vaccine against anthrax? Well, we know about Pasteur's
skill in shaping and enrolling allies-microbes, farmers, hygienists, even doctors-
and it is clear that Koch simply did not succeed in his enrollment drive or, in the words
of Latour, "could not deliver on his ostensible promise" (p. 111).
I think these examples make it rather clear that with the network model and the
concept of enrollment we can easily account for anything, no matter what happens.
Pauling's model might have been accepted; Rontgen shown to be a fraud, and Blondlot
a great physicist; Koch might have been hailed as the inventor of the treatment for
tuberculosis, and Pasteur might have been totally forgotten; but Latour's explanatory
framework would need no adjustment at all. But perhaps this is unfair. After all,
Latour's network model shares its foolproof character with a number of other social
theories, and if that were its only flaw, perhaps it could still be of service in describing
and interpreting science.

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Book Review 501

In what way, however, does the network model throw any light on
the processes by which Pasteur, Rontgen, and Watson and Crick suc
Koch, Blondlot and Pauling failed? We know that Pasteur, Rontgen, an
Crick managed to create strong networks by linking together a numbe
neous allies. Even if we were able to list all these allies, we could not-if we follow
Latour-know how any one of them contributed to the success or failure of the
scientist. Since we are not to inquire into the character of the relationships among the
elements of a network, we have no means of knowing which allies count and what
made the links forged by these scientists strong; the only sign of their strength is that
they have not been severed. In other words, since Latour's idea of a heterogeneous
network makes it impossible to inquire into the characteristics of different kinds of
alliances, all that he is finally able to say about the strength of any particular alliance
is that it is strong only when it cannot be severed, and that it cannot be severed only
if it is strong. Latour could probably derive from this yet another pseudoparadox,
arguing with the voice of one Janus that the strength of an alliance is a consequence
of enrollment and with the voice of the other that enrollment is a consequence of the
strength of an alliance. Yet this does not make his account of networks any more
enlightening than his earlier accounts of how facts are constructed, representations of
nature established, and machines made to work.
But what does it mean to enroll a microbe or an electron, let alone to be enrolled
by one? In what way is enrolling the microbe the same as enrolling a group of
interested farmers or enrolling someone to finance a given project equivalent to the
enrollment of a group of colleagues? Does each actant contribute to success or failure
in the same way? Do scientists enroll electrons for the same reasons they enroll
industrialists? Is the recruitment of a police force or an army equivalent to the
enrollment of a group of other scientists? Does enrollment really mean the same thing
in all these cases? It seems to me that the goals, the means, and the results of enrolling
such different kinds of "allies" are hardly comparable, and that the elimination of
differences among them leads only to confusion. It would be absurd to use arguments
to try to convince a microbe to give a scientist some extra funding for further research.
Making the laboratory an "obligatory translation passage" for a farmer will not
impress on a microbe its obligation to behave as the scientist desires. Even if we were
to go along with Latour's idea that the exercise of control over things and people is
the only goal of scientist research, we would still be unable to understand how this
authority is achieved and used, without making distinctions among the kinds of
control to which the different categories of actors and actants can be subjected, and
among the various means by which domination can be exercised over different kinds
of actors and actants.
Latour's insistence that winning is the only thing that matters in science has some
very pernicious implications, especially when combined with his attempt to obliterate
all distinctions between the various means and methods that can be used to exercise
control over people and objects. To put it bluntly, Latour's epistemology insists on
the idea that might makes right, while his sociology eliminates all distinctions between
the various means that can be used to achieve control over things or people. Latour's

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502 Science, Technology, & Human Values

notion of examining only the strength and not the character of alliances means that it
no longer matters whether the scientist's victory is assured by the use of arguments
or by success in eliminating opponents physically, whether enrollment takes place by
performing experiments that convince others or by fraud, whether allies are convinced
that a particular course of action is of benefit or whether they are being intimidated
or simply bought.
Using Latour's logic and his vocabulary, it appears not only that Lysenko was a
great scientist but also that the methods he used to assure his victory over Soviet
genetics and agriculture are a superb example of sound scientific strategy. After all,
Lysenko managed to build a long and strong network by enlisting Stalin, who "arrayed
and drilled its troops" (p. 56) from the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del
(NKVD), and the network thus constructed clearly made all "dissent impossible"
(p. 103). Lysenko knew exactly how to "intimidate or to force most people out"
(p. 44), how to "force them into accepting a claim as a fact" (p. 62), how to ensure
that any "dissident [is] driven into isolation" (p. 62), and "how to be 2000 against
one" (p. 50). Latour's terminology fits Lysenko's activities better than those of any
other scientist I can think of. And the fact that he accomplished his goal of control
and domination by making sure that his opponents were sent off to die in the Gulag,
by literally "displacing" the peasants against their will, and by winning trials of
strength with grain thanks to fake data, would not-if we were to accept Latour's
model-make his achievement any less scientific.3
Lysenko's status as a scientist can be fully appreciated only if it is compared to
that of a failure, such as Galileo. Galileo, as Latour points out, deluded himself by
thinking that science can be weak and that "a thousand Demosthenes and a thousand
Aristotles would be left in the lurch by any average man who happened to hit on the
truth for himself" (p. 32). As a result of his lack of appreciation for power, strength,
allies, tactics, enlistment-not to mention his compatriot Machiavelli-Galileo
showed himself to be a poor scientist by failing to enroll the church. We know what
this failure cost him: house arrest and isolation. But as Latour reminds us, "an isolated
person builds only dreams, claims and feelings, not facts" (p. 41).
Latour's indifference to the means and methods of enrollment and control,
combined with his constant vocabulary of war and his assurance that the "similarity
between the proof race and the arms race is not a metaphor" (p. 172), undermines not
only science or technology but also our own traditions of discourse tout court. We
may well be unable to provide an unequivocal demarcation between science and
nonscience, to formulate an ahistorical definition of rationality, or to ensure a firm
foundation for knowledge; but it does not follow from this that all methods of gaining
assent or reaching consensus are equivalent. Do we really want to believe that there
is no difference between the power of arms, of dictators and policemen, and of what
we in our culturally specific way call rational argument? Are we prepared to agree
with the conclusion that it matters not at all what we say and how we justify what we
are saying as long as we make others believe us and manage to enroll them, no matter
by what means and for what purpose? And if winning is the only thing that matters,
if being right is nothing else than being strong, if the means by which various goals

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Book Review 503

are accomplished are a matter of indifference, then should we not ask o

we are after and what methods we are prepared to use?
Latour is perfectly aware of these consequences of his position fo
enterprise. In the work on reflexivity I mentioned earlier, he asks, "If
explaining something is that of empire-building, should we explain so
we really want to participate in network-building? . . . Do we lust for
recognition? Do we want to imitate the ethos and styles of science?" H
these questions is a "qualified no." But to reject power and empire buil
necessary to reject the ideal of explanation. Accordingly, Latour asserts th
of explanation ... is not a desirable goal" and that rather than aiming at
we should strive to be "telling stories" (p. 164). Apart from the fact that in
we can pretty much abandon all responsibility for what we are saying, I w
sort of nonexplanatory stories we could be telling one another if we w
trying to avoid the charge of network building? Are there any stories
that they could not be regarded as stratagems in a struggle for power
First, such powerless stories would have to be inconsistent and incohe
make them either consistent or coherent would mean that we are tryin
impossible for others to "sever the links between the elements of a netwo
we would have to make sure our stories could not possibly be acceptable as accurate
or true, since both truth and accuracy might increase the danger of our inadvertent
enrollment of some well-meaning readers. Third, our stories would have to be about
nothing at all, for if they were about people or things or ideas, we would become
spokespersons for other actors and again find ourselves building a network. Fourth,
we would have to abandon all attempts to reach an audience, since an audience might
come to like our stories and find itself enrolled. Fifth, we would have to stop discussing
our stories with others or disagreeing with other people's stories, since arguments are
only a means of increasing our own control and domination. Somehow, the ideal of
a social science whose only goal is to tell inconsistent, false, and incoherent stories
about nothing in particular does not strike me as very appealing or sufficiently
Olga Amsterdamska
University of Amsterdam


1. This identification of things and representations goes far beyond any consensus theory
of truth, for it eliminates from consideration shared belief and shared reasons for holding
particular beliefs. A statement is not a fact when people (collectively) believe it and formulate
reasons for believing it, but when they state it as a fact, removing the modalities. For Tarski's
"the statement 'snow is white' is true if snow is white," Latour would substitute something like
"the statement 'snow is white' is true if we say 'snow is white'." Even Latour himself, however,
is unable to remain consistently within this semiological universe, and in his own language he
makes constant references to the distinction between things and their representations, exploiting
it for his own argumentative purposes.

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504 Science, Technology, & Human Values

2. Latour (1988).
3. Lysenko's case is a favorite example cited in antirelativist arguments, but I am not
referring to this case here in order to argue against epistemological relativism. My point is not
that there are some absolute and historically unchanging criteria according to which Lysenko's
version of genetics can be judged inadequate but that the methods to which Lysenko resorted in
order to ensure his victory are generally not considered to be either acceptable or usual means
of settling scientific controversies or achieving consensus in science. Latour's refusal to make
distinctions between various kinds of enrollment eliminates the possibility of seeing some of
these means of settling controversies or reaching consensus as either typical of scientific
discourse or, alternatively, unacceptable within its conventions. And the impression that it makes
no difference how consensus is achieved is supported stylistically by the constant recourse to a
warlike vocabulary that, indeed, fits cases such as that of Lysenko much better than it fits the
more typical instances of scientific controversy.


Latour, B. 1988. The politics of explanation: An alternative. In Knowledge and reflexivity, edited
by S. Woolgar, 162. London: Sage.

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