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Can I Get a Witness?

Since we don’t directly witness the scientific experiment demonstrated in a laboratory, we take on faith that the witnesses who do are a trustworthy jury of scientific peers. We trust they will make their judgements independent of politics and religion.

This era’s attacks on science pinpoint the witnesses as untrustworthy because they are members of the “elite trustworthy community”—the very thing that is meant to give them purchase. In their place, a conspiracy of witnesses is substituted to testify to whatever “alternative facts” that serve their political agenda.

From Bruno Latour’s “We Have Never Been Modern.”

Boyle’s innovation is striking. Against Hobbes’s judgement he takes possession of the old repertoire of penal law and biblical exegesis, but he does so in order to apply them to the testimony of the things put to the test in the laboratory. As Shapin and Schaffer write:

Sprat and Boyle appealed to ‘the practice of our courts of justice here in England” to sustain the moral certainty of their conclusions and to support the argument that the multiplication of witnesses allows “a concurrence of such probabilities.” Boyle used the provision of Clarendon’s 1661 Treason Act, in which, he said, two witnesses were necessary to convict. So the legal and priestly models of authority through witnessing were fundamental resources for the experimenters. Reliable witnesses were ipso facto the members of a trustworthy community: Papists, atheists, and sectaries found their stories challenged, the social status of a witness sustained his credibility, and the concurring voices of many witnesses put the extremists to fight. Hobbes called the basis of this practice: once again, he displayed the form of life that sustained witnessing as an ineffective and subversive enterprise. (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985, p. 327)

At first glance, Boyle’s repertoire does not contribute much that is new. Scholars, monks, jurists and scribes had been developing all those resources for a millennium and more. What is new, however, is their point of application. Earlier, the witnesses had been written by men or inspired by God—never inspired or written by nonhumans. The law courts had seen countless human and divine trials come and go—never affairs that called into question the behavior of nonhumans in a laboratory transformed into a court of justice.

Published in collaboration culture desire network politics zettel

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