Comment on the New York Times Magazine's profile of Bruno Latour

by Alan Sokal

In response to the New York Times Magazine's profile of sociologist Bruno Latour ("Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science", October 25, 2018), I wrote the next day to author Ava Kofman to point out some serious inadequacies (as I see it) in her article. I received no response.

A week later I forwarded the letter to the New York Times Magazine's Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein and Culture Editor Sasha Weiss. Again I received no response.

Three weeks later I tried again, and finally received a brief e-mail from Deputy Editor Bill Wasik indicating that he had been the editor of the article. In reply, I asked him whether elementary fact-checking is part of his duty as editor. To date I have received no response.

The entire correspondence, including my critique of the NYT article, is posted here.

From: Alan Sokal <>
Date: Fri, 26 Oct 2018 07:43:23 -0400
Subject: your profile of Bruno Latour

Dear Ms. Kofman,

I read with interest your profile of Bruno Latour in the NYT Magazine.

Alas, it seems to me that you might have done your readers more of a service had you bothered to interview also some of the critics of Latour's writings.

So, here is what I would have told you, had you asked me.

The basic trouble with much of Latour's writings -- as with those of some other sociologists and philosophers of a "social constructivist" bent -- is that (as Jean Bricmont and I pointed out already in 1997)

these texts are often ambiguous and can be read in at least two distinct ways: a "moderate" reading, which leads to claims that are either worth discussing or else true but trivial; and a "radical" reading, which leads to claims that are surprising but false. Unfortunately, the radical interpretation is often taken not only as the "correct" interpretation of the original text but also as a well-established fact ("X has shown that ...") -- a conclusion that we shall sharply criticize.
We have seen in this book numerous ambiguous texts that can be interpreted in two different ways: as an assertion that is true but relatively banal, or as one that is radical but manifestly false. And we cannot help thinking that, in many cases, these ambiguities are deliberate. Indeed, they offer a great advantage in intellectual battles: the radical interpretation can serve to attract relatively inexperienced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous interpretation.

[Bricmont and Sokal, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, illegal PDF downloadable at -- see pp. 51 and 189]

Moreover, I pointed out this tactic specifically with regard to Latour's own writings, in an article in Le Monde [also available in English] in direct response to Latour (again back in 1997):

But Latour's main tactic, in presenting his vision of the sociology of science, is to empty it of all its content by retreating into platitudes that no one would question. ...

Unfortunately, you too have faithfully reproduced, in your own voice, these same misrepresentations and confusions:

1) You write:

When [Latour] presented his early findings at the first meeting of the newly established Society for Social Studies of Science, in 1976, many of his colleagues were taken aback by a series of black-and-white photographic slides depicting scientists on the job, as though they were chimpanzees. It was felt that scientists were the only ones who could speak with authority on behalf of science; there was something blasphemous about subjecting the discipline, supposedly the apex of modern society, to the kind of cold scrutiny that anthropologists traditionally reserved for "premodern" peoples.
In reality, it beggars belief to imagine that sociologists of science --- whose entire raison d'être is precisely to subject the social practice of science to "cold scrutiny" -- could possibly think that "scientists were the only ones who could speak with authority on behalf of science". Did you bother to seek confirmation of this self-serving claim from anyone present at that 1976 meeting, other than Latour himself?

For what it's worth, even Paul Gross and the late Norman Levitt -- widely reputed (probably correctly) to be even more rabid "science warriors" than myself -- wrote unambiguously:

Natural scientists ... do not feel that their particular expertise in some area of science automatically endows them with insight into the human phenomenology of scientific practice, or that familiarity with the recent results and the liveliest questions of their specialty qualifies them to pronounce on its evolution as that relates to the course of human development. Apart from the most arrogant, they concede that the psychological quirks and modes of personal interaction characteristic of working scientists are not entitled to special immunity from the scrutiny of social science. If bricklayers or insurance salesmen are to be the objects of vocational studies by academics, there is no reason why mathematicians or molecular biologists shouldn't sit still for the same treatment.

[Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994), p. 42]

2) In the same way, you faithfully reproduce Latour's ambiguities concerning the notion of "fact":

It had long been taken for granted, for example, that scientific facts and entities, like cells and quarks and prions, existed "out there" in the world before they were discovered by scientists. Latour turned this notion on its head. In a series of controversial books in the 1970s and 1980s, he argued that scientific facts should instead be seen as a product of scientific inquiry. ...
In your article you take for granted that Latour's view is correct: indeed, a few paragraphs later you say that Latour showed "that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures". But, like Latour, you never explain in what sense the traditional view -- that cells and quarks and prions existed "out there" in the world before they were discovered by scientists -- is mistaken. As Bricmont and I recount (p. 96n123 of Fashionable Nonsense):
An even more extreme example of this confusion appears in a recent article by Latour in La Recherche, a French monthly magazine devoted to the popularization of science (Latour 1998). Here Latour discusses what he interprets as the discovery in 1976, by French scientists working on the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, that his death (circa 1213 B.C.) was due to tuberculosis. Latour asks: "How could he pass away due to a bacillus discovered by Robert Koch in 1882?" Latour notes, correctly, that it would be an anachronism to assert that Ramses II was killed by machine-gun fire or died from the stress provoked by a stock-market crash. But then, Latour wonders, why isn't death from tuberculosis likewise an anachronism? He goes so far as to assert that "Before Koch, the bacillus has no real existence." He dismisses the common-sense notion that Koch discovered a pre-existing bacillus as "having only the appearance of common sense". Of course, in the rest of the article, Latour gives no argument to justify these radical claims and provides no genuine alternative to the common-sense answer. He simply stresses the obvious fact that, in order to discover the cause of Ramses' death, a sophisticated analysis in Parisian laboratories was needed. But unless Latour is putting forward the truly radical claim that nothing we discover ever existed prior to its "discovery" --- in particular, that no murderer is a murderer, in the sense that he committed a crime before the police "discovered" him to be a murderer --- he needs to explain what is special about bacilli, and this he has utterly failed to do. The result is that Latour is saying nothing clear, and the article oscillates between extreme banalities and blatant falsehoods.
We go on to explain (p. 96) that "Latour is playing constantly on the confusion between facts and our knowledge of them" -- see pp. 92-99 for a detailed analysis of Latour's main contentions in his book Science in Action.

And see pp. 101-103 for further discussion of confusions concerning the notion of "fact" (in particular, the confusion between facts and assertions of fact), using as an example a passage from the philosopher Gérard Fourez, who gives the following definition of "fact" in a text aimed at explaining "some notions of epistemology" to high-school teachers:

Fact. What one generally calls a fact is an interpretation of a situation that no one, at least for the moment, wants to call into question. ...

To assert that a proposition states a fact (that is, has the status of a factual or empirical proposition) is to claim that there is hardly any controversy about this interpretation at the moment one is speaking. But a fact can be put into question.

Example: For many centuries, it was considered to be a fact that the Sun revolves each day around the Earth. The appearance of another theory, such as that of the diurnal rotation of the Earth, entailed the replacement of the fact just cited by another: "The Earth rotates on its axis each day."

We comment:
For us, as for most people, a "fact" is a situation in the external world that exists irrespective of the knowledge we have (or don't have) of it -- in particular, irrespective of any consensus or interpretation. Thus, it makes sense to say there are facts of which we are ignorant (Shakespeare's exact birth date, or the number of neutrinos emitted per second by the Sun). And there is a world of difference between saying that X killed Y and saying that no one, for the moment, wants to dispute this assertion (e.g., because X is black and everyone else is racist, or because biased news media successfully make people think that X killed Y). When it comes to a concrete example, the authors [Fourez et al] backtrack: they say that the Sun's revolution around the Earth was considered to be a fact, which amounts to admitting the distinction we are stressing (i.e., it was not really a fact). But in the next sentence they fall back into confusion: one fact has been replaced by another. Taken literally, in the usual sense of the word "fact", this would mean that the Earth has rotated on its axis only since Copernicus. But, of course, all the authors really mean is that people's beliefs changed. Then why not say so, rather than confusing facts with (consensus) beliefs by using the same word to denote both concepts?
An identical criticism could be made of Latour's writings, and of yours:
By showing that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures, these critics charge, Latour -- whether he intended to or not -- gave license to a pernicious anything-goes relativism that cynical conservatives were only too happy to appropriate for their own ends.
If Latour had really shown that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures, then the critics' charge would be unfair. But in reality Latour had not shown anything of the sort; he had simply asserted it, and many others (not cited by you) had criticized those assertions. Of course, it goes without saying that scientists' beliefs (and assertions of alleged fact) about the external world are the product of all-too-human procedures -- that is true and utterly banal. But Latour's claims are nothing more than deliberate confusion between two senses of the word "fact" (namely, the usual one and his own idiosyncratic one).

I could go on citing examples of similar confusions from your article, but let me not bore you further.

What is sad about all this is that Latour does make some important points about the psychology and sociology of human belief:

"facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media." With the rise of alternative facts, it has become clear that whether or not a statement is believed depends far less on its veracity than on the conditions of its "construction" -- that is, who is making it, to whom it’s being addressed and from which institutions it emerges and is made visible. A greater understanding of the circumstances out of which misinformation arises and the communities in which it takes root, Latour contends, will better equip us to combat it.
True enough. But muddying the distinction between facts and assertions of fact undermines our ability to think clearly about this crucial psychological/sociological/political problem. [See also Section 4 of my article with Bricmont, "Science and sociology of science: Beyond war and peace" (2001).]

In conclusion: It is sad that you failed to consult, prior to writing your article, with anyone who could have offered you an even slightly critical view of Latour's work. If you had, you might have clarified for your readers an intellectual debate that has, as you and Latour correctly point out -- and as Bricmont and I pointed out 20 years ago, and as Noam Chomsky had pointed out even earlier -- extremely serious real-world consequences. As it stands, however, you have published in the "newspaper of record" a fawning profile of Latour could, alas, easily have been written by his own public-relations agent.

I very much look forward to hearing from you, and I am very much open to discussing these issues further.

With my best wishes from sunny London,

Alan Sokal

From: Alan Sokal <>
Date: Thu, 01 Nov 2018 07:02:23 -0400
Subject: For Jake Silverstein and Sasha Weiss

Dear Mr. Silverstein and Ms. Weiss,

Last Friday I sent the enclosed e-mail to Ava Kofman, the author of the profile of Bruno Latour that you published in the Magazine last week. But I have not heard anything from her, and I worry that I might not have her correct e-mail address. Could you please forward this e-mail to her? Many thanks.

This e-mail is not confidential -- and since it concerns some serious failures of balanced reporting (and even of simple fact-checking, see #1 below) in an article that you published, you should feel free to read it. I would be interested in hearing your comments.


Alan Sokal

Professor of Mathematics, University College London and Professor Emeritus of Physics, New York University


From: Alan Sokal <>
Date: Wed, 21 Nov 2018 05:30:53 -0500
Subject: your profile of Bruno Latour (TRYING AGAIN)

Dear Ms. Kofman, Mr. Silverstein and Ms. Weiss,

Four weeks I ago I wrote to Ms. Kofman concerning her profile of Bruno Latour published in the NYT Magazine; and a week later, fearing that I had the wrong e-mail address, I forwarded the letter also to Mr. Silverstein and Ms. Weiss.

Alas, I have not received any response from any of you -- not even to acknowledge receipt of my e-mail.

The honorable thing, it seems to me, would be to discuss openly and frankly the serious shortcomings (as I see it) in your reportage. You have, of course, the perfect right to disagree with part or all of my analysis, but in that case it would be sensible to explain why. That, at any rate, is what I do when people make reasoned criticisms of my work.

But it is not my role to tell you how to be a reporter, or how to run your newspaper. If you prefer to ignore reasoned criticisms and pretend that everything is hunky-dory, I cannot stop you.

If, on the other hand, you do wish -- even at this late date -- to discuss honestly the issues that I raised in my e-mail, I remain open to doing so.

With my best wishes from rainy London,

Alan Sokal

Professor of Mathematics, University College London and Professor Emeritus of Physics, New York University


From: "Wasik, Bill" <>
Date: Wed, 21 Nov 2018 15:39:39 -0500
Subject: Re: your profile of Bruno Latour (TRYING AGAIN)

Prof. Sokal --

Jake Silverstein passed along your note to me; I was the editor of the Latour story. Unfortunately we've already published letters pertaining to the issue that story was published in, and in any case our letters page is not equipped to handle responses of this length. But I appreciate your thoughtful criticism. If you do decide to publish this response elsewhere, even on your blog or on social media, please send me a link.

all best,

Bill Wasik

From: Alan Sokal <>
Date: Thu, 22 Nov 2018 11:33:34 -0500
Subject: Re: your profile of Bruno Latour (TRYING AGAIN)

Dear Mr. Wasik,

Many thanks for getting back to me. Indeed I realized that my comments were too long to be published as a letter, which is why I wrote privately to Ms. Kofman (and later to Jake Silverstein). I'm disappointed that Ms. Kofman has shown no interest in engaging with the issues I raised. I would be happy if you had any comment on them. For instance, I argue that the story not only is grossly lacking in balance, but even lacks the most minimal fact-checking: as I pointed out, it completely beggars belief to imagine that *sociologists* of science could have reacted to Latour's work in the way that the story says they did (presumably on Latour's say-so without any effort at corroboration). Is it your job as editor to pick up on such howlers?

Best wishes,

Alan Sokal


> If you do decide to publish this response elsewhere, even on your blog or on social media, please send me a link.

Yes, I will probably post it on my webpage (though very few people probably see it). If I do, I will send you a link.

From: Alan Sokal <>
Date: Fri, 30 Nov 2018 05:27:35 -0500 (EST)
To: "Wasik, Bill" <>
Subject: Re: your profile of Bruno Latour (TRYING AGAIN)

Dear Mr. Wasik,

I'm not sure whether you received my response to your e-mail of Nov 21, so let me repeat briefly my question to you.

My criticism of the Latour story concerned not only its gross lack of balance, but also the failure of the most elementary fact-checking. I pointed out, for instance, that it completely beggars belief to imagine that sociologists of science could have reacted to Latour's work in the way that the article says that they did, and I asked whether corroboration of this implausible claim (which presumably came from Latour himself, although the story simply stated it as a fact, without giving a source) had been sought from anyone else present at the meeting in question.

And I asked you whether this type of fact-checking (or rather, checking for gross implausibilities in alleged facts) is part of your duty as editor.

I am currently preparing to make public my comments on this story, and I would be most happy to post your answer to this question, as well as any other comment that you might wish to make. (I will also post your lack of response to my question, if that is the case.)

With best wishes from an unusually sunny London,

Alan Sokal

From: Alan Sokal <>
Date: Tue, 4 Dec 2018 16:24:30 +0000
Subject: Re: your profile of Bruno Latour (TRYING AGAIN)

Dear Mr. Wasik,

I'm not sure whether you have received my e-mails of Nov 22 and Nov 30. Just to be sure, I am enclosing the latter one here: it contains a very brief and precise question to you, which you could answer in one word ("yes" or "no") in case you have enough time to do so.

But, not having heard from you, I have gone ahead and posted my comment on my website at and

I would be most happy to add any comments that you might wish to make, as editor responsible for the Latour article.


Alan Sokal


Alan Sokal is Professor of Mathematics at University College London and Professor Emeritus of Physics at New York University.