Can Science Cope with Matters of Concern?

Yrjö Haila -gradupalkinnoksi valittu teos 2019:

Isabelle Stengers: Another Science is Possible. A Manifesto for Slow Science. Polity Press 2018.


Science is needed for clarifying environmental problems: the problems have a material shape which it is the task of science to chart. But it has been known since the 1970s at the latest that science does not directly translate into social awareness, let alone political programs. So, what is the relationship between what science can tell about the problems and what policies are reasonable to address them?

Isabelle Stengers is well qualified to address this question. Her basic education is in chemistry and she earned her credentials as a philosopher of science through co-operation with Nobel-price physicist Ilya Prigogine on the pathbreaking book Order Out Of Chaos (1984) which brought non-linearity and complexity onto the agenda of science studies.[1] Two volumes of her essays on historical and social aspects of science were translated into English in the 1990s: Power and Invention. Situating Science (1997), and The Invention of Modern Science (2000); Cosmopolitics I and II, her exploration of science and politics in the contemporary age, was published in 2010-2011 (French original 1997).[2] Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, her take on the problematique of climate change was published in 2015 (French original 2009).[3] – This brief history is useful as some of the main themes she takes up in the new volume are introduced in earlier works, particularly in Cosmopolitics; which means that her argument may seem convoluted, metaphorically heavy, for a reader not familiar at all with the earlier work.

One of the major themes Stengers has explored in her work is science and construction. At the background are the so-called ’Science Wars’ – this is the theme in Book I in Cosmopolitics. Stengers urges a critical distinction to be drawn between two dimensions of the issue of construction: The phenomena studied by science are not human constructions, whereas science, including the research setting is. But this one-dimensional distinction is not accurate enough: Science can be a reliable and useful construction – and often is, especially when the site of construction is the laboratory; but scientific results (’facts’) can turn bad if extrapolated to contexts they do not fit – this also commonly happens. The question is: How far and wide do scientific facts travel and yet retain their validity? – ’Transplantation’ is the term Stengers uses in the new volume (p. 53): successful transplantation of scientific facts from one laboratory to the next grounds the reliability of experimental science.

Such distinctions should be self-evident, but science wars have arisen because of misunderstandings that collate these aspects together, often purposefully. The result has quite expectedly been a bipolar fight: ’truth’ versus ’construction’.

Stengers is a staunch defender of scientific knowledge but she is critical of what she regards as an institutional blindness of the established science concerning the misuse and poor judgement hiding under the surface.

Political ecology is a generic term for the perspective she adopts (p. 148):

“The first feature is that political ecology needs to ’put the sciences into politics’, but without reducing them to politics. This requires fully developing, around each issue, the primordial political question: who can talk of what, be the spokesperson of what, represent what, object in the name of what?.”

In Another Science is Possible Stengers presents in a polemical, often sarcastic style an overview of the kind of political ecology she promotes. She begins the first chapter entitled Towards a Public Intelligence of the Sciences by taking up the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMO). But, in a surprising twist, her focus is not on the safety or unsafety of GMOs but on the sloppy and overtly generalizing arguments used by the promoters of GMO technology as a solution to the global hunger crisis. For, as the crisis is socioeconomical in nature, it is unlikely that the results earned in the purified setting of the laboratory would travel to the social reality of food production without causing severe disturbance, ’collateral damage’.

How do honest scientists come up with overtly generalizing claims as regards the applicability of their results? This, in Stengers’ view, is not due to individual disposition or failure but to a systemic flaw in the ethos of contemporary science. Stengers offers a corrective in the first chapter (p. 7): What is needed is a public intelligence of science which “would involve an intelligent and lucid relationship to scientific claims, an intelligence that would concern the scientists as much as the ’people’, since they are all vulnerable to the same temptation.” A public intelligence of this kind could be promoted by ’connoisseurs’ who are able to assess the significance of scientific findings in proper contexts. It is in the interest of scientists themselves to support the creation of public intelligence of science: scientists need resources to address the institutional limitations that constrain their work.

In the second chapter of the book entitled Researchers With the Right Stuff Stengers makes use of two novels to illuminate the situation with historical precedents. The chapter gets its title from Tom Wolfe’s novel The Right Stuff (1979) which tells the story of test pilots training to become NASA’s astronauts. If a pilot died in an accident, his colleagues would say that he did not ’have the right stuff’; which, of course, is nonsense because the fatal accident had nothing to do with the skills of the pilot – rather, the setting is about luck as to what the pilot gets to test: an adequate prototype or a flying coffin.

The other precedent is offered by Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas (1938), a sarcastic semi-documentary that takes up the obstacles women were facing when (not) getting accepted in the leading universities and (not) getting hired in ordinary professional jobs in the 1930s Britain. Woolf uses illuminating citations from articles and speeches of prominent well-educated men disparaging the intellectual and emotive capacities of their non-educated sisters and daughters, and also written sources from earlier times (although, as she notes, biographic materials on women of the 19th century were very scarce indeed). – In a word, the uneducated sisters and daughters of the well-educated men did not ’have the right stuff’.

The core of the historical similes Stengers presents to us is this: ’having the right stuff’ in today’s academic world means accepting a strict separation between ’hard scientific facts’ and ’soft-headed opinion’ when framing and addressing research problems. She clarifies how this connects to the case of GMOs (p. 39):

“A recent and striking example is, of course, the claim of molecular biologists that their strains of genetically modified plants could solve the problem of world hunger. The gendered dimension was clear in the phobic contempt with which they dismissed the doubts of their colleagues who pointed to the socioeconomic reasons for famine, to social inequalities that were in danger of widening, to the destruction of agricultural modes of production, or to the difference between laboratory-created GMOs and those planted on hundreds of thousands of hectares. In this case, the social scientists were like women with too many sensitivities, who can speak only of risks and uncertainties.”

Stengers continues her analysis of the situation in the third chapter entitled Science and Values: How Can We Slow Down? Obviously, the points she is making require careful argumentation. The importance and positive potential of science is not at issue; such a misunderstanding she has to avoid. Instead, at issue are institutional factors that lead to a severe bias in what the role of science is in the current society.

Stengers takes up two fashionable terms to get at the sources of the bias. The first is the cancerous spread of ’evaluation’ of research, with the purported aim of recognizing ’excellence’. Stengers considers this compulsive fashion a serious nuisance; it “demands that the researchers pitch their research on the basis of what these [high-ranking] journals impose in terms of norms: conformity, opportunism and flexibility – such is the formula for excellence” (p. 49). The second harmful fashion is the talk of ’knowledge economy’ – which “might be better named ’the speculative economy of promises’” (p.54).

Stengers regards these widespread practices as the main problems of the ethos of contemporary science as it actually presents itself. As she notes, the practices have their model in the experimental laboratory sciences in which they have worked, to a certain extent. These are ’fast sciences’ which academic institutions have taken as exemplary, with the consequence that (p. 68):

“[A]nyone mimicking those sciences will always be at an advantage. It goes without saying that objective evaluation is dedicated to transforming this advantage into hegemony, pure and simple.”

Serious problems begin when the model is transplanted to new domains. Careful scrutiny of the conditions of success is replaced with blind, sometimes aggressive faith in generalizability. ’Capture’ is a term Stengers uses of this process;[4] as a rule, the stronger captures the weaker (p. 54): “Capture can happen in a great variety of ways, according to the ability of those-to-be-captured to frame their own conditions.” – What she calls ’the speculative economy of promise’ (i.e., ’knowledge economy’) has multiplied the forms of capture and extended them also into various fields of social studies: What kind of problems researchers are obliged to promise they will solve, with what kind of resources?

Instead, what is needed is evaluation of the results and their relevance. Stengers uses symbiosis – living together so that both parties benefit – as a positive model (p. 73): “I shall employ the notion of symbiosis as a joining of heterogeneous beings – where each has its respective world matter in heterogeneous ways, from which each benefits, or which each valorises, in its own way.” In the old times successful symbiosis was an established routine in many fields of experimental science – for instance symbiosis between science and mathematics. However, the situation is more complicated nowadays when the social context of research is often foregrounded.

Slowing down is an oppositional move to the urge toward ’excellence’ (p. 80): “[I]n the sense I have outlined here, slowness, like speed, has a meaning which links researchers to all those who know that the imperatives of flexibility and competitiveness condemn them to destruction.”

Stengers introduces two historical precedents within science in the next chapter entitled Ludwig Fleck, Thomas Kuhn and the Challenge of Slowing Down the Sciences. For her, Fleck and Kuhn exemplify the distinction formulated by Bruno Latour, matters of fact versus matters of concern: scientific findings (as facts) do not speak for themselves, rather, the significance of the findings need interpretation. Nothing is self-evidently significant; so, the question is: How does a fact become a matter of concern, for what reasons and for whom?

Political ecology is about matters of concern. This is easily said, but the task of identifying what really matters is much more complicated or ’messy’ than we could imagine only a few decades ago. ’Slow science’ is for Stengers a clarion call directed to scientists to take the time to ponder seriously what the messy concerns are; but there are no short-cuts (p. (100):

“[S]low science is not about scientists taking full account of the messy complications of the world. It is about them facing up to the challenge of developing a collective awareness about the particularity and selective character of their own thought-style.”

Stengers continues the argument by shifting to a perspective on future in the fifth chapter entitled ’Another Science is Possible!’ A Plea for Slow Science. First of all, the starting point has to be identified; she offers a bleak picture (p. 107):

“[W]e must admit that we have been successfully compelled to surrender a great part of our freedom to dissent. We now have to tell our students to choose subjects that will lead to fast publication in high-ranking journals specialising in professionally recognised issues – issues which, in general, are of interest to nobody except other fast-publishing colleagues. We have to tell them that, if they want to survive, they have to learn to conform to the blinkered normative frames imposed by such publications.”

If this institutional conformism retains its grip on science, the future is compromised. As to the nature of the challenge we are confronting, Stengers offers an unpromising guess (p. 108): “I would name that challenge ’barbarism’, as the most probable outcome of what is going on today.”

The prospect of future barbarism is another way of saying that the future is associated with radical uncertainty. How to respond to this vision? – that is the question. Fast science does not recognize the challenge at all; fast science remains confined to the purified setting of the laboratory: “Which means that scientific reliability is situated, bound, to the constraints of its production” (p. 118).

There is no simple way to find an alternative; therefore, gaining experience of the messy nature of real-life problems outside the laboratory becomes an imperative. The challenge is learning (p. 120):

“This may be the challenge that slow science should answer, enabling scientists to accept that what is messy is not defective but simply that which we have to learn to live in and think with. … So I would characterize slow science as the demanding operation that would reclaim the art of dealing with, and learning from, what scientists too often consider messy, that is, what escapes general, so-called objective, categories.”

The other expression that Stengers uses is ’ecology of partial connections’ – as a characterization of a process (p. 127)

“which requires learning from others, being transformed by what is learned, and acknowledging our debt to this transformative experience as we explore its problematising impacts in our own terms.”

Stengers draws conclusions in the final chapter entitled Cosmopolitics. Civilizing Modern Practices. She adopts ’the intrusion of Gaia’ as a symbolic expression for the radically uncertain threats humanity is facing, with reference to the metaphoric Goddess of the Earth brought into symbolic life by the maverick James Lovelock. She explicates (p. 137): “I had to begin with Gaia in order to situate my approach, which I would characterize as inseparably constructivist, pragmatist and speculative.”

These are terms that describe her methodological perspective: ’constructivist’ in the sense that human views and beliefs of the world are necessarily human constructs (but this does not equal an “anything goes” attitude – some constructs are better than others); ’pragmatist’ in the sense that knowledge builds upon practical actions and experiences (which is not equal to shallow instrumentalism); and ’speculative’ in the sense that imagination is necessary because there are no guarantees (and again: some imageries are more fruitful, hence better than others).

’Cosmopolitics’ is a difficult neologism which Stengers adopted sometime in the 1990s. My understanding of the term associates with ’cosmology’ in the classical sense, as a view of the order of the world, but with the addition that contrasting views of the world may breed political clashes of utmost importance. Nevertheless, cosmopolitics implies a potential of order and invites practical, collective, mundane exploration of the world surrounding us. Stengers employs two figures who, with mutual co-operation, might succeed in preserving such beneficial order (p. 153): the expert and the diplomat. The expert is called “to present what they know, in a mode that does not pre-empt how that knowledge should be taken into account.” The diplomat’s role, by contrast, is “above all to force experts to think about the possibility that an envisaged course of action may effectively amount to an act of war.”[5]

Stengers tells how she came to invent the term cosmopolitics (p. 150):

“|The term] came to me as something of a surprise, when I suddenly realised that political ecology itself had to be civilised. I was working on the formulation of what should be demanded of participants assembled around an issue, in order to give that issue the power to get them thinking together; the conclusion I came to was that all participants would have to accept that the meaning of what matters for each of them, or what they are the spokespersons for, is to be determined by the relations woven through this thinking together.”

* * * * *

So, how can we understand the potential of science to clarify the human predicament defined by inscrutable global environmental problems, the “incursion of Gaia”? This question is both for connoisseurs of public intelligence of science and for practicing researchers to answer. I think the question has to be addressed on two levels.

First, detailed knowledge is needed on every specific theme, be it climate change, erosion of biodiversity, loss of productive soil, eutrophication of inland and coastal waters, or whatever. A sort of ”division of labor” is possible: recruit specialists to help, build up multi-disciplinary coalitions, listen to all the people for whom these issues are matters of concern in various ways, and so on. This is, of course, what ideally happens in environmental research institutes such as SYKE (it would be interesting to know how this works out in practice!).

But secondly, the question has to be asked on a more general dimension: What does science do? – or indeed: What can science do?; and How does science do what it does?

The merit of Stengers’ work is that she addresses such general-level questions in a serious way; she presents the whole weight of her arguments in this small book. The book requires reading at least twice, if not tree or four times. This is for two reasons which superficially seem mutually conflicting:

On the one hand, so much is in the air these days on these themes that Stengers’ arguments may seem overtly familiar. Not so, her arguments are much more subtle than what we are accustomed to, and much more conducive to significant practical conclusions.

On the other hand, on the first reading the picture that Stengers draws may seem utterly pessimistic. This, too, would be a false impression; there is optimism in what she says – optimism concerning the possibilities of enhancing the positive potential of the sciences in the spirit of political ecology: a collective effort to clarify matters of concern, and end up with significant practical conclusions.

Science meets us with two faces, like Janus, the Greek “god or spirit of the doorway”[6]: promising potential in one direction, serious misuse in the other. At the core is, paradoxically as it may seem, the success of the laboratory science. But no paradox here as success in itself is Janus-faced, offering potential toward the future but simultaneously encapsulating hideous secrets in the inside.

But I leave the last word to Stengers (p. 155-6):

“One never resists of reclaims in general. My way of resisting and reclaiming may well seem derisory since it deals with ideas. But the power of ideas is not to be downplayed. The idea that we are doomed to define other peoples as entertaining mere beliefs, or nature as a mere resource, is a very infectious one, which you meet everywhere. It breeds guilt and poisons our capacity to resist, leading us instead to identify with the capitalist logic that has captured us. As for the idea of cosmopolitics, its efficacy, however speculative, is to activate the possibility of resisting and reclaiming what this capture has systematically attacked or poisoned.”

Yrjö Haila


[1] Published by Bantam Books. This was three years prior to James Gleick’s popular bestseller Chaos. Making a New Science.

[2] These were all published by University of Minnesota Press.

[3] Freely available on the internet; publisher: Open Humanities Press/ Meson Press.

[4] In Stengers’ terminology capture is an important term when describing how research procedures take shape through an ’ecology of practices’. She uses the term ’reciprocal capture’ to describe the process of mutual alignment of researcher and what the research is about (Cosmopolitics I, 36-41).

[5] The setting is foregrounded in Book VII, “The Curse of Tolerance” in Cosmopolitics II; it brings into mind the “Yellow-vest movement” in France.

[6] H.J.  Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Methuen & Co (1928); Rose considers Janus a denizen of “Italian pseudo-mythology.”

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