Why we can’t “just” observe the climate controversy

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In teaching his students how to study the cartography of controversy—a didactic manifestation of actor network theory (ANT)—Bruno Latour apparently shrugged and told his students: “Just look at controversies and tell what you see.” As delightfully laconic and appealingly French as the statement might first appear, it belies the baffling complexity implied by ANT. The statement itself then becomes an analogue for theory itself, and it’s hard not to believe that this was, if he ever actually said it, Latour’s intent.

Latour is doubtless a paragon in the field of science and technology studies and, as iconoclastic as my tendencies err, I am not arrogant enough to seek to challenge the veracity or applicability of his techniques. Except in one area. Is it appropriate, given overwhelming scientific consensus and the immediacy of climate impacts, to apply ANT to mapping the climate “controversy”? I have argued over and over that the real climate controversy lies in the argument over whether there is even a controversy in the most empirical sense of that word or not (there isn’t). But I’m not going to do that today. Instead, let’s delve deeper into that simplistic suggestion of Latour’s, and the tenants of ANT, in order to evaluate its implications for the study of this specific techno-scientific controversy.

The concequences of “just”

The first consequence of “just” looking at the climate controversy is that it implies that your observations should not be constrained by any single theory or methodology. Fair enough, you might think, in support of open-mindedness and objectivity. Except ANT still demands certain conformities. We must treat all actors in climate controversy as being equal nodes within a constantly shifting web of interdependent relationships. It’s “just” that simple. We must also posit that no external social forces, beyond what and how the network participants interact at present, impact the flow of the network. But how, and why, should we view the climate controversy via a lens that excludes the plethora of social forces that are impact and are impacted by the issue? When discussing the physical environment (physics talk, not rhetorical) we are discussing all products of the environment. i.e. Every human that ever existed, every thought to ever spring from any wet matter brain. The climate controversy could be argued to be in no small part the product of external social forces.

ANT would demand from a researcher a level of impartiality in observing this issue from as many viewpoints as possible, affording equal voice to all actors, supressing your own assumptions. I argue that affording equal voice to all actors is the very misapplication of objectivity that perpetuated the illusion of controversy in the first place. When the physical environmental sciences are so certain on an the issue of anthropogenic climate change, how much space should the social sciences afford to uncertainty and the antagonistic actors who would deny science without reason?

The tenants of ANT are the very things that negate its applicability to reviewing the climate “controvery”. Controversies involve all kind of actors, not only human beings and human groups, but also natural and biological elements. And all actors are not equal, and should not be perceived as such in this circumstance. The environment itself is by far the most impactful actor, with the loudest voice, and should be afforded the greatest attention. So what is the environment trying to tell us?

I am not the first to criticize ANT and Latour for not taking a stand on the issues they study, and being therefore politically naïve (believing that social sciences could be impartial) or cynical (believing that social sciences can’t influence social life). According to ANT, the role that research should play in collective disputes is not that of steering their closure. The notion that scholars have no right to jump in and impose their solutions to techno-scientific issues, I find to be a frightening one. The notion that those stakeholders with greater knowledge and insight should at most be afforded only equal voice seems philosophically anachronistic given the current socio-political climate.

ANT is hesitant to take a stand. I say it’s too late not to take a stand. If the physical sciences have taken such a uniformed and certain stand, then the social sciences should not stick so rigidly to utilitarian notions of objectivity. In age where intelligence itself is under attack, where government agencies are forced to publically contest the assertions of the incumbent administration, intellectuals must necessarily take a stand when reviewing any notion of climate “controversy”. We are not observing bacteria in a petri dish. This is our world. What greater good could there be than to steer the issue to a beneficial conclusion for an entire planet and all her biological offspring?

 

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