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Drawn into an intellectual maelstrom. The vulnerability of the
naïve researcher encountering idiosyncrasy: strategies for
evaluating contribution to scholarship
Cedric C. Gilson MSc LLM DipEdTech
School of Law
University of Westminster, London, UK
This paper concerns methodology more than substance. Its arguments and
reasoning could have universal application to problems experienced in
researching for a PhD. Essentially, it is about reflexivity and discernment in
analysing scholarship for its contribution to research aims, and the problems
that arise when unusual and diverting work is encountered in the literature.
My position in relation to my PhD is that of a researcher trying to enlarge
the boundaries of knowledge to answer my research question, and so I am
keeping an open mind about the theories and propositions that I encounter.
However, while there is certainty and safety in relying on the archive of
accumulated conventional literature, this is dislodged when the discourse of
scholars with novel opinions appears abruptly in the field of knowledge, and
without apparent history. Lacking the assurance of the archive and with only a
scant opportunity for the community of peers to form an opinion (that might
well be critical), one is thrown onto one’s own resources in order to evaluate
the new material. In this a naïve researcher like me can become unsettled.
Procedure for presentation
My research topic concerns finding resources to mediate the incommensurability of science and law in legal contexts. Conventional wisdom is that
these are functionally differentiated fields, representing closed or partly closed
systems that cannot communicate. However, law relies on science in the
modern age to assist its decisions and some means of them being able to
comprehend one another is essential.
The outline for presentations at this conference, that Henry Rothstein sent
we research students, is straightforward and I attempted to connect my
research to the headings he gave. The first heading—the research question— is
simple and I have already mentioned it. Second, the literature to which I hope
to contribute is in the area of socio-legal studies. Third, my research design
and methods centre on library-based studies in all related fields, with strong
emphasis on the philosophy and sociology of science and law, aided by high
input from associated studies and, as it transpires in practice, valuable
interactive supervision meetings. However, when considering the fourth and
fifth headings in the protocol—findings, interpretations and outlook— I found
in my case that a fracture occurred in the list because the difficulty experienced
over the work of idiosyncratic scholars makes exactly those features of research
open to question. The thrust of this paper, therefore, is how the inexperienced
research student can form strategies to evaluate such work for its contribution
to knowledge, and eventually to be able to satisfy the last two elements in
Henry Rothstein’s list.
Given the research task of my degree it is natural to look for systems of
observing science and law that are independent of the way they each
understand themselves, and that can reframe these knowledges in their own
terms. Of the social sciences, the discipline and methods of sociology offer
appropriate means, and in this regard, I encountered the unusual work of
Bruno Latour.
Laboratory Life: Bruno Latour
Professor Latour employs ethnographic and highly participative research
methods in his studies. Rather than dwell on the methods of ethnography, it is
more important to focus on Latour's findings, because these accentuate
contrasts. In the first of the two studies that I shall discuss today, he sought to
examine the culture and practice of a scientific institution from the inside, The
Salk Institute in San Diego, producing his results in the publication with Steve
Woolgar entitled Laboratory Life—The construction of scientific facts. This
novel approach to research into the workings of science, in which interactions
between scientists in their daily work were studied minutely, produced
interesting observation and comment.
Latour and Woolgar found it impossible to separate the social and scientific world because science is merely the result of many operations in the social
realm. More significantly, at least I thought so, there was a sense in which their
observation of the processes of biological science risked colonizing their
ethnographic analysis. Paradoxically, the recontextualisation of ethnography
as part of the wider scientific process could have a unifying effect between the
natural and social sciences. I shall return to this later.
Creating a world of laboratories: the administrative court of France,
scientific objects and legal objectivity
While Laboratory Life was an unusual piece of research, it represented
simply the application of a system of observation to another discipline. Its
findings were largely descriptive but credible. A second study, undertaken by
Bruno Latour alone, involved ethnographic study of the French Supreme Court
in Administrative Law, the Conseil d’Etat. Adapting the French translation of
the work, I have called the resulting opus ‘Creating a World of Laboratories:
scientific objects and legal objectivity’.
Latour attempted what I call the intussusception of two disciplines,
namely importing scientific methods into the operation of a court of law so as
to make it resemble a laboratory and, conversely, reflecting legal processes into
the arena of science to make fresh evaluations of them. This represented a leap
from the practicality of Laboratory Life with, some might say, bizarre
Latour re-characterized scientific research by likening its claims to claims
made in legal proceedings but contrasted science’s provisional assertions with
law’s need for closure. He commented on lawyers’ ability to distance
themselves from case substance, but that was not replicated in scientists’
passionate involvement, which never diminished. This opposed the traditional
vision of the objectivity of scientists and instead credited this to lawyers. On
the question of truth, Latour indicated that science pursued it everlastingly,
while law was obliged to curtail the search in order to conclude.
Bruno Latour drew a useful distinction between researchers, and experts
called as witnesses in trials. Signifying that whereas, for the researcher,
experimental findings serve only as the catalyst for a new inquiry, experts
expect to convey irrevocability because they are imbued with responsibility for
certainty. While he cautions that expert witness opinion must not form a
warrant for judgment, Latour’s observation resonates with recent instances in
English courts where the opinions of medical experts have led to unsafe
convictions for parental murder of young children.
The redepiction of fact simply as a knowledge claim, enables Latour to cast
science in a forum where negotiation is possible. Attributing the confusion of
the rôles of science and law to early empiricism, Professor Latour comments
that the conceptualisation of sense data was responsible for inappropriately
crossing the view of science as the purveyor of incontrovertible fact, with the
objectivity that law dispenses.
He concludes that the distinction of science and law should reside in the
functions they perform and that therefore science should not be asked to judge,
and law not to decide the truth.
Latour's intussusception of science into law in the French Administrative
Court, questions whether incommensurability devolving from the autonomy
they both enjoy as functionally differentiated knowledge systems, is disturbed.
The extreme position of autopoiesis applied by Niklas Luhmann to law is that
it is a totally closed, self-referential system. Latour's penetrative and
transformative enterprise reconstructs law in science’s own province. If
systematically successful, this exploit could undermine autopoietic assertions.
However, Latour uses his method only to reaffirm science and law’s distinctions in terms of their societal rôles, albeit with an unjustified confidence that
from henceforth science should never depict its opinions as final and law
likewise should never task science with responsibility for the truth. Whether
epistemological intussusception can mediate incommensurability, demands
deeper study.
Intellectual Impostures: Sokal and Bricmont
In their unforgiving critique of the work of several contemporary philosophers and sociologists of science under the title Intellectual Impostures, Alan
Sokal and Jean Bricmont ardently disapprove of Bruno Latour's postmodern
outlook with its implicit flight from the canons of empiricism, due to what they
call the ‘relativistic drift’. They attribute this to failure of the Vienna Circle to
complete the task of formalizing science, thereby sowing scepticism. Sokal and
Bricmont object to the prospectus of Barry Barnes and David Bloor, subscribed
to by Bruno Latour, that is referred to as the ‘strong programme’ in the
sociology of science, that marks a shift from sociologists’ contentment with
explaining the social context of scientific activity, to the more ambitious
explanation in sociological contexts the content of scientific theories.
Coincidentally with Thomas Kuhn’s work,i Latour and Woolgar refer in
Laboratory Life to the shift of the concern of sociologists of science from the
stuff of socially-constructed science to the sociology of scientific knowledge.
Bruno Latour directed this stratagem into the arena of scientific opinion,
venturing on one occasion into astrophysics and theory concerning the
emission of neutrinos from the sun. He posited nature as the knower of its own
truths but relegated the efforts of research to that of a socially-constructed
power game.ii This ignored empirical findings and Sokal and Bricmont felt that
Latour played on confusion between facts and our knowledge of them. A
further foray into special relativity theory that appeared to reinterpret the
function of Einstein’s frames of reference, and misconstrue the meaning of
observers, left Sokal and Bricmont appalled at Latour's audacity in challenging
such universally accepted theories.
Sokal and Bricmont resoundingly indict Latour's assertions as either true
but banal or surprising but manifestly false. In the quest for
knowledge, every researcher hopes for revelations that are surprising but
true while discarding the banal and false.
Strategies for evaluating contribution to scholarship
For the naïve researcher it is essential to formulate personal strategies to
evaluate unconventional theories. Patently, it is a prime task to determine the
extent to which scholar’s ideas engage usefully with the research question, and
to admit or deny them from the study on that basis. This gatekeeping function
demands deep personal reflexivity, and one even has to reflect on how to
construct this. My responsibility is to improve my own methodology and
thinking. But, first, the new assertions must be analysed.
The transition from sociology of scientific practice to that of scientific
knowledge moves the observing rôle of sociology towards epistemological
studies, that could signify a new kind of knowledge, but its limitations should
be understood. In Laboratory Life, Latour's participative study showed that
the anthropological probe risked being colonized by the object, but it is also
possible that Latour rehabilitates sociology by reconceptualizing it within
biology as part of the totality of life’s organisation. This would tend to unify the
natural and social sciences. Compare this with the analysis of the sociologist of
law, Roger Cotterrell, that sociological inquiry can subvert, rather than unify,
the social sciences, that the knowledge claims of other disciplines become part
of its own subject-matter, that its observations are at best mere sociological
data and it has no distinctive subject-matter of its own.
The nexus of the philosophical account of empiricism and the emergence of
the expert is neither a banal nor a false opinion, and the distinction of experts
and researchers is instructive rather than surprising. This reading also has
relevance in current legal contexts. Latour's associations and distinctions are
grounded in accepted theory, and here his perceptions sharpen understanding.
However his attempts to redefine science through analysis of scientists’ activity
in the neutrino debate, fails to clarify nature, and thereby they invoke Sokal
and Bricmont’s censure. His new perspectives on relativity theory are thoughtprovoking but inconsistent with classical theory. In these last instances, Latour
has transgressed the interpretive boundaries of the new sociology of scientific
Systems theories are well grounded and acknowledged in many fields of
study. Communication between systems is possible by means of transcendental
vehicles, exemplified importantly by trans-science. In this the insurmountable
problems of science are dealt with by law using an adversarial technique.
Adversarialism therefore becomes an agent that negotiates the outcome. The
strong programme in the sociology of science does not represent a transcendental vehicle, but entails instead a shift of aspect for sociological inquiry.
Latour crosses system boundaries unapologetically, encouraged by the strong
programme. He endows the nature of problems with a surprise value but in his
probing fails to ask the right questions, which sometimes leads to manifestly
false conclusions.
A critique of Latour's novel perspectives can be developed through the
standard of the Pragmatic Attachment, after C.S. Pierce, through its
prescription that knowledge consists of valid explanations that, when applied
to problem-situations, make a difference to our evaluation of them. Explanations that fail in this respect are not valued. Relatedly, the Realist view says
that there is an objective reality that exists solely by virtue of how the world is,
and in principle is discoverable by the methods of science. Adopted as advance
strategies, these could avoid entanglement with postmodern theories but,
utilizing pragmatism and realism as comparators, the naïve researcher can
consider philosophies that locate rationality in judgment of what appears
practical, and assists in problem-solving.
The importance of a scholar’s work is gauged by whether it has any social
effect. As a researcher, I perform a critical function in determining the
acceptability of scientific theories in my work. Ultimately, all assertions,
including those of law, must prove socially acceptable. Defining the ‘line’ I take
between my problems and my reading of science relies on comparing my
feelings on social acceptability as an individual member of society. This should
be supplemented by a sense of the achievements intended for my thesis,
combined with selecting standards by which to judge intellectual challenges.
As part of this reflexive exercise, I have considered the followingCotterrell’s account of the subversion of social science disciplines by
sociological inquiry, and the tension between unification and colonization in Latour's studies
The strong programme in the sociology of science, which meshes
with Latour's impulses and leads him to surprising conclusions
The issue of the intussusception of disciplines which, if systematically successful, could undermine autopoiesis
Comparisons with truly transcendental vehicles that support communication between systems by mechanism or agency
The use of non-postmodern perspectives that offer a different rationality against which to compare unorthodox claims
My problem is characterized by capture, struggle and release. Can a PhD
researcher avoid becoming colonized by theory? Bruno Latour’s idiosyncrasy
alarmed me initially but it was highly seductive; now I understand him better, I
see interesting ways in which his perspectives will augment my inquiry. I can
detect from Latour's later work that these kinds of studies founded ActorNetwork Theory that lays at the centre of Science and Technology Studies.
These ideas are enjoying an increased following among philosophers and
sociologists of science. But I perceive an experimentalism in other ideas, the
findings of which might never enter settled opinion. However, as a now slightly
less naïve researcher, I do not feel so vulnerable, and am more equipped to
avoid being captured unawares by nonconformist theories.
See Kuhn, T. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago: Chicago University Press,
p.238. “…Kuhn’s insistence that the way in which we are able to discover the nature of science is
“intrinsically sociological” and is to be accomplished by “examining the nature of the scientific
group, discovering what it tolerates and what it disdains”, also leads to relativism if it transpires
that different groups value, tolerate and disdain different things. This, indeed, is how proponents
of the sociology of science currently in vogue commonly interpret Kuhn, developing his views into
an explicit relativism. [In. Chalmers, AF, (1999) 3e. What is this thing called science? Buckingham:
Open University Press].
ii But see Pinch, T. (1986) Confronting nature – the sociology of solar-neutrino detection,
(Dordrecht: Reidel)