“In sum, then, our discussion is informed by the conviction that a body of practices widely regarded by outsiders as well-organized, logical, and coherent, in fact consists of a disordered array of observations with which scientists struggle to produce order.” (Laboratory Life, 36)
As discussed in class, us humanists often think of scientific laboratories as being near identical in their methodic and sterile nature, but in Laboratory Life Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar argue for the “idiosyncratic, local, heterogenous, contextual, and multi-faceted character of scientific practices” (152). In fact, the authors claim that science is a “highly creative activity” in which “knowledge is constructed,” leading to their working methodology to analyze the “social construction of scientific knowledge” (31-2). They begin their account using the process of defamiliarization—making the scientific laboratory new by transforming the (generally) familiar into the strange—before moving on to a historical treatment of a specific scientific fact’s construction, followed by a discussion of the individuals and micro-processes that make up a lab. Ultimately, Latour and Woolgar decide that science is a field of argument or debate, much like law or politics, because “scientific order [is] constructed out of chaos” and “alternate readings are always possible” (33, 35).
In the authors’ case study at California’s The Salk Institute, scientists depend on a number of frameworks to construct order and knowledge. Latour and Woolgar highlight the importance of the Institute’s physical layout, equipment, and investment; they investigate individual scientists’ activities, routines, types of conversation, origin of ideas, and unreliability of memory/account; and they recognize the way that scientific evaluation continuously builds on previously contentious facts, closing off alternative interpretations of evidence. Despite the interplay of these frameworks, the Institute’s scientists are adamant that they work to uncover “hard facts,” truths that already exist “out there” (128). Latour acknowledges the pushback received from the scientists regarding his claim for the social construction of scientific fact. Indeed, throughout the authors’ observations in Laboratory Life, I could only find one instance where the Institute’s staff acknowledged any of the bias resulting from overarching lab frameworks, in this case the difficulty of factoring human agency into findings (164).
I’m glad, too, that the authors acknowledge the cultural bias of their status as external onlookers; it’s perhaps telling that they use traditional humanist tools such as defamiliarization and literary inscription to focus their study. They appreciate the impossibility of acting as completely neutral observers, as we are always constrained by cultural affinities, and try to position themselves between the impossible desire to enter as a total newcomer, and the impractical outcome of becoming a complete participant. Latour is conscious that through his observations at the Institute, he came to view his own field of sociology biologically. It would be interesting to see if the Institute’s community was affected by Latour’s presence; if any sociological factors began to influence their thinking and doing. In his introduction, the Institute’s then director, Jonas Salk, comments that his “own style of thought was transformed,” and he wouldn’t be surprised if future science labs use “in-house philosophers or sociologists” (12, 14). But he doesn’t specify any detail about this purported altered perception, and although Saltz approves of the authors’ study, he clearly disagrees with their overall finding that facts are crafted through creative construction.
All of these findings play into our class discussion about the impossibility of neutral tools and processes in a lab. We unanimously agreed that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, and that with regards to the technological, we should always consider the sociopolitical factors behind the creation and use of the tech. At the end of the day, scientific fact and humanistic inquiry’s high degree of commonality can be summed up by the authors nod to Heidegger mid-way through their text: “thinking is craftwork” (171). All thinking is subjective, which is why we should analyze the cultural capital of any process or study; Latour and Woolgar’s publication was groundbreaking for that very reason.
Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. Print.