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Reliable Witnesses: A Retraction

In December, in a piece entitled Scientists Distorting Science? I suggested that in the context of Joshua Greene’s paper “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul”, Greene was not a reliable witness in the sense offered by Bruno Latour. This was an error, since for Latour a reliable witness is what a researcher talks about. The researcher themself is a spokeperson for the thing in question e.g. in the context of special relativity, Einstein was a spokeperson for light, and the Kennedy-Thorndike experiment was a reliable witness.

This being so, I should not have claimed, in Latour’s sense at least, that Greene was not a reliable witness. I should have said that Greene was a bad spokeperson for the human brain in this paper, or perhaps that Greene was a bad spokeperson for deontological ethics (probably both). The reason he was a bad spokeperson is that he didn’t not have any reliable witnesses in the context of what he was claiming, but he himself could not be a reliable witness in Latour’s sense.

I’d also like to say that the title of this post was rubbish and I wish I’d thought of something better, particularly since precisely Latour’s point about science studies is that we shouldn’t think about scientists ‘distorting the science’ since a scientist is just a researcher, and ‘science’ in this sense is just an abstraction (Latour would write it Science and contrast it to the sciences). Scientists don’t distort the sciences, they just research, and if they do their research well they find reliable witnesses and thus become spokepeople for various things. It was precisely because Greene did not focus on the part of his work that was a reliable witness (for the neural systems involved in moral judgement) that he failed to be a good spokeperson for the brain in this paper.


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