Latour and the Scio-Cultural Context of Science

     The way science shapes society and vice-versa is an interesting point when considering the impacts of science on society. Many people traditionally believe that science acts independently of society. This is a narrow view that does not take into account a recursive definition of science. People use science to build society which uses the knowledge learned from science to direct the future. Science and society must be examined simultaneously and are not mutually exclusive.

     Latour uses the example of Pasteur’s laboratory as an example of how the interaction of the lay person with the laboratory environment can ‘move the world’. Latour describes three examples of how Pasteur was able to change society from the lab by exposing the common person to the lab, producing results in the lab a lay person could understand, and then producing a result that has application.

     The example of the diseases (anthrax) in the pastures of livestock in France was a classical example of using the laboratory to change the world. First off Latour setup a temporary laboratory in the the farmland. This was a strategic move that exposes the lay persons to the techniques of the scientist and builds their trust in the scientific method.

     Then Latour brought samples back to his laboratory and worked diligently to produces results that a lay person could understand. In this example he cultivated the bacteria into visible cultures so that the farmers could see what was affecting their livestock. This is an important move because people want to see results and this visible demonstration of the cultures proves undeniably that disease exist.

     Finally the most important step is the follow through. While everybody enjoys the fantasy of science, guided by truth and morality, as an almost godly profession in search of pureness. At the end of the day people want to see a change in their life for science to really impact one’s perception of science. Pasteur produces artificial vaccines that the farmers can use to cure their livestock. This is in stark contrast to colleagues of Pasteur who would direct their attention to studying biochemistry instead of producing viable applications for the people. As one of Pasteur’s student puts it in reference to studying basic science, “Well after all, it was just an interesting curiosity!”

     The effect of science on society and society on science is reciprocal. This is why it is important that when we analyze science one must also take into account the society which surrounds science. People in a social contract guide science by providing patronage because science is very expensive and requires collective resources to undertake a project. Therefore it is important that scientist understand this connection and make a point to travel outside the confines of the laboratory to engage with people and gain the trust of people. The lab is not an isolated place for reclusive people, it is a tool that scientist use to change the environment. But change is contingent on trust which must be built by engaging in dialogue with society.