Who Speaks for Nature? On the Politics of Science

Who Speaks for Nature? On the Politics of Science

Who Speaks for Nature? On the Politics of Science

Who Speaks for Nature? On the Politics of Science


When natural scientists speak up in public about the material phenomena they have observed, measured, and analyzed in the lab or the field, they embody a distinctive version of political authority. Where does science derive its remarkably resilient, though often contested, capacity to give voice to nature? What efforts on the part of scientists and nonscientists alike determine who is regarded as a legitimate witness to material reality and whose speech is discounted as idle chatter, mere opinion, or noise?

In Who Speaks for Nature?, Laura Ephraim reveals the roots of scientific authority in what she calls "world-building politics": the collection of practices through which scientists and citizens collaborate with and struggle against each other to engage natural things and events and to construct a shared yet heterogeneous world. Through innovative readings of some of the most important thinkers of science and politics of the near and distant past, including René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Giambattista Vico, and Hannah Arendt, Ephraim argues that the natural sciences are political because they are crucial sites in which the worldly relationships that bind together the human and nonhuman are inherited, augmented, and reconstructed.

Who Speaks for Nature? opens a novel conversation between political theory, science, and technology studies and augments existing efforts by feminists, environmentalists, and democratic theorists to challenge the traditional binary separating nature and politics. In an age of climate change and climate-change denial, Ephraim brings theoretical understandings of politics to bear on real-world events and decisions and uncovers fresh insights into the place of scientists in public life.


When scientists speak publicly about things they have observed, measured, and analyzed in the lab or the field, their words carry special weight. Unlike more casual observers of the physical milieu—patients, mothers, poets, gardeners, laborers, cloud watchers—natural scientists are regarded as authorities when it comes to their objects of study. To acknowledge this much is not to deny that the authority of science and scientists can be challenged—for example, when citizens from Woburn, Massachusetts, created a “leukemia map” to refute experts’ repeated claims that the toxic waste in their community was benign, or when members of act up chanted “We’re here to show defiance for what Harvard calls good science” while protesting the protocols and priorities of aids researchers. But as such activists understand better than anyone, citizen movements face an uphill battle when they contest a scientific consensus. Today, the authority of the natural sciences—and the stakes of movements to support, co-opt, or erode that authority—are all the more visible in light of the twin dangers of climate change and climate denial. Global movements for environmental justice and sustainability seek to buttress the authority of the natural sciences, recognizing that this authority may be the last best hope in the struggle for earth’s future against moneyed fossil-fuel interests. Meanwhile, these interests spend lavishly to sow doubt about the climate science consensus, suggesting that they, too, recognize the authority of science as a formidable obstacle to their agenda. If the question that frames this book, Who Speaks for Nature?, is seldom asked directly in these struggles, or in academic and political debates more generally, perhaps this is because the answer is obvious: scientists do.

But if scientists’ capacity to speak authoritatively on behalf of the material environment seems almost self-evident, it is far less apparent how this authority comes to be established, sustained, and eroded, and under . . .

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