Antonio Lafuente: “A laboratory is a place where important questions are asked”

CSIC researcher believes that the current laboratory model is very close to the experimental culture and claims more open spaces.

Antonio Lafuente, researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), thinks that the current laboratory model is too closed for experimental culture, and supports the idea of more open spaces where “strict rules do not scare away life”. Creativity is not an absolute. Nor is it a process. According to Antonio Lafuente, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) researcher, creativity is “like an atmosphere where […]

CSIC researcher Antonio Lafuente thinks that the current laboratory model is too closed for experimental culture, and supports the idea of more open spaces where “strict rules do not scare away life”.

Creativity is not an absolute. Nor is it a process.  Creativity is, according to CSIC researcher Antonio Lafuente, “like an atmosphere where openness, failure, sharing, differences, and the unfinished are welcome. It’s a place where the experiences and energy of many people can be mobilised at once. Also, it’s “something where the ability to listen is more important than the ability to speak”.

The researcher, specialising in the study of science, has written an article in which he questions the statement made by French sociologist Bruno Latour in 1983: ‘Give me a laboratory and I’ll move the world’ “Are we really going to put all of the world’s problems into a laboratory?” Lafuente asks. For the researcher, “experimental culture has no place in a laboratory. It’s too big. It doesn’t fit” and that is why he supports “sociable places which aren’t so rigid, and where strict rules don’t scare away life” Of all of these places, the kitchen is the oldest. Many studies affirm that that is the origin of modern science and experimental culture. The laboratory is much more recent. It appeared in the middle of the 19th century.

So, what do a laboratory and a kitchen have in common?

Toni Segarra, Jorge Martínez y Enrique Gracián have asked Lafuente to talk to them about the subject. The meeting takes place in Medialab (Madrid), and first of all the researcher warns that: “The word laboratory is not an innocent word”.

“It’s a contentious word for me. For decades, many of us dedicated ourselves to thinking about what a laboratory is, and what happens inside one”, he explains. “Previously, we thought that ideas were born inside your head, and were related to rational findings, but there are more and more studies which explain that the place where things happen is key to the processes which go on there. This is what feminists have been saying for over three decades. To know what someone means, the first question to ask is from where are they speaking. Things like the social position of the speaker, their race, or gender, make a big difference.

A laboratory is a place which specialises in the simplification of problems. For a problem to be valid in a laboratory, it must be subjected to a small number of measurable variables. And you can’t just measure whatever you want. You can only study what you can measure with the machines you have available”, says Lafuente. “A laboratory is a place where things are disciplined. It might seem like the best place to discover the world, but you might say that it prescribes rather than describes.”

Lafuente doesn’t doubt the “success of science”. “Nobody questions it”, he adds. “But it’s important to ask oneself what happens when something is brought into a laboratory”.

Ferran Adrià made gazpacho into H2O, and I want him to give me the water back

The researcher brings up an example: “The difference between water and H2O”.

“Many people think that they’re the same thing, but they’re nothing alike. H20 is a scientific construction which is designed to circulate around scientific networks. That’s where those who know, those who understand are. And outside of this network are the rest of us, those of us who need to be taught, those of us who need to go to school to learn. And if you dare to speak in front of the experts, they will tell you to be quiet because you have no idea. Your role is to listen, and theirs is to speak.

“There is a book by Iliich called H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, which explains this conflict very well. In it, he says that the city of Dallas was very rich, but it had no water. They wanted a lake and invited architects, philosophers, and anthropologists to an international competition. Illich, the philosopher who invented the education of the oppressed, went there to demonstrate that it was impossible to build a lake in Dallas because water is linked to a culture, to beliefs. He spoke about the Ganges and its traditions, that place where they say: ‘We’re going to clean our bodies and our minds’ But in Dallas they could never achieve that. They just wanted a nice place to take photos”, he says.

“In the end the lake was built, but his book had much more impact than the rest of the projects put forward. This is what scientists do. They turn things into something of enormous value for science, and ultimately, for humanity., but they manage to take the charm out of everything, take the water out of everything. The romantics used to say that they didn’t trust botanists because they were capable of collecting plants from their mother’s grave. Lafuente says that “in some ways, scientists are unravelling the fabric which unites us all. Everything that applies to water applies to cooking.

“In urban laboratories like Medialab, El Campo de la Cebada or Bici Crítica, they do the exact opposite: they try to approach problems in a way that doesn’t exclude anybody. That’s why it seems appropriate to compare what happens in the kitchen to what happens in the laboratory.

Enrique Gracián: Do you agree with the statement that a laboratory is a place to solve problems?

Antonio Lafuente: No. I think that a laboratory is a place where important questions are asked. But only questions which can be made into scientific objects, things which can be measured and weighed. Science brings us millions of wonderful things, but it does have limitations. Everything must be reduced to the parameters which scientists know how to manage. That’s why a laboratory is designed to distinguish facts from opinions. They say that everything that happens in a laboratory is fact, and indisputable. They’re the darlings of the laboratory. And everything that happens outside of the laboratory is the terrain of politics, the debatable, what comes and goes. What has happened in the world? Only things which have come into the laboratory can be talked about, and the laboratory has become a place where all conflicts must enter.

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Jorge Martínez: Bruno Latour maintains that a laboratory does not just consist of what happens within those four walls…

A.L.: I’m almost a slave to Latour. It’s taken me years to carve out my point of view from what the sociologist thinks, but I’m also allowed to have my own ideas. I can say that he doesn’t know anything about ‘El Campo de la Cebada’, the 15-M Movement, or the Okupa movement. And I can criticise the fact that he is not at all interested in Africa, or the enormous imbalances in our world. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out why he’s not interested.

J.M. Are movements like ‘El Campo de la Cebada’ what you call cooking?

A.L.: I would say that there, they experiment in the style of a kitchen, rather than in the style of a laboratory.

J.M. Would you say then that elBulli is more of a laboratory than a kitchen?

A.L.: Ferran Adrià made gazpacho into H20, and I want him to give me the water back. Experimenting with water means experimenting with what we share, and what unites us.

Toni Segarra: That’s where the theme of gentrification comes into it. For a long time, food has been a status symbol.

A.L.: This reverence by the media, the adulation, the front pages… This all makes it even more suspicious. Mothers cook in order to feed the people they love, and that’s really great. It’s an enormous privilege and my way of understanding friendship and love.

I think that this world has gone forever with this reverence towards that type of gastronomy.

T.S.: I think that the gentrification you mentioned is a minority. Cooking is still something which belongs in the home. Something we discovered in our research was that Ferran never had a business plan. Quite the contrary. Without knowing why, he has created a universal brand which he earns money from, and that’s what he does for a living. But he never earned money from the restaurant. He never worried about earning money. I eventually came to the conclusion that elBulli subverted this aristocratic idea, because the rich couldn’t go and eat there just because they were rich.

A.L.: What seems like a sham to me is the whole idea of seeing chefs as big stars.

T.S.: Cooking has become a spectacle, like football, for some inexplicable reason.

E.G.: Let’s go back to the laboratory. Let’s say that there are two types. The scientific (let’s call it type A) which is ruled by other guidelines, and the urban, which you’ve just defined (let’s call it type B). The difference between the two is a question of methodology. Type A wants its results to be objective, verifiable, and above all, wants them to work. Type B has an emotional component which the first type doesn’t have. But ultimately, results always demand some type of certification, validity, objectivity, usefulness, and emotional laboratories shirk this certification. How does an urban lab achieve it?

A.L.: There is a school of intellectuals who say that reason produces monsters, as Goya predicted, and that great evil can be perfectly planned out. The first people who became interested in diet, nutrition, and sports were those who created Nazi Germany. At the same time as destroying the world, they were extremely preoccupied with the amount of sugar they were eating. What I mean is that you can be the most evil person in the world, but at the same time the most rational and experimental.

The laboratory is a place where solutions are sought

The laboratory is a place where solutions are sought. There is an author who coined the concept of ‘proof workers’, meaning those who focus exclusively on obtaining proof. More than 90% of professionals in laboratories nowadays are proof workers, and they will never discover anything or be quoted by anybody. There is an army of people who are doing an invisible job. They are the ones who sustain the laboratory and who refine questions so that they become more and more precise. Questions which measure controllable variables by my machines. But that means reducing problems, and that is why they say that scientists are reductionists. Well of course they are. We admire them for being reductionists and at the same time we complain about it.

I’ll give you an example. Every time I establish a standard, I generate a minority. Is there anything better than total connectivity and free internet for everyone? But  electrosensitive people will put their hands up and say: ‘My body is different to yours, and by doing this you’re killing me’. What do we do then? Until now, we’ve said its collateral damage. They were in the wrong camp, and nothing could be done. But today these groups are mobilising. It’s not as simple as ignoring them, and to a large extent, we owe the evolution of the public space to them.

The other day I read that one out of every five Americans suffers from a severe addiction; one out of every three has or will have a chronic illness; and one out of every five has a severe behavioural problem, such as autism or depression. These figures show that the normal state of the world we live in is abnormality. What was once our idea of sanity, of good, is changing at an incredible speed. The thing is, it is not so easy now to create laws for an immense majority, because every time you create one, a minority appears. Science is built on a hypothesis which has proven itself to be insufficient: that all human bodies are equal.

What do we do now? I’ll start by giving an example: Alcoholics AnonymousSome years ago they came together and decided that curing alcoholism was not the responsibility of doctors. It became their issue. They listen to the rest of the group, and the rest of the group listens to them. And the unexpected miracle occurs. They feel understood and they understand everybody else. They discover that the solution to their problem is not individual. It’s collective. Of course there is no cure, but these meetings can improve their quality of life. And if we used to say that something was true because it was based on facts proven in a laboratory, now we can glimpse a new paradigm where things are true because they produce a better quality of life. An improvement which can be proven.

Does that mean that we can dispense with scientists? Absolutely. What it means is that scientists can stop being so arrogant. They should start to listen a little more, and they should start to put everything that is experimental into their test tubes, which has to do with what I know is happening to me and what is happening to him. Objectivity is an essential value in civilisation, but it won’t help us to resolve all of the problems which we have.

What’s more, for Antonio Lafuente, civilisation also creates problems which didn’t exist before. The CSIC researcher explains this point with a remark which he read recently.

“A girl wrote this question: What does ornithology matter to a goldfinch? The first response would be: Nothing. Goldfinches live in their own world. What do they care if in Harvard some clever people are thinking about them.” But the author goes on to say: ‘Goldfinches are wrong. Someone should show them that whenever there are ornithologists there will be politicians for birds. They’ll decide if they are many or few, what they need… goldfinches should be very worried because ornithologists are aware of them. From that day forward, things could turn for better or for worse. Goldfinches need philosopher birds to think about the problems they face.

E.G.: I’m thinking about music. There’s popular music which we all share, but suddenly a guy arrives, called Bach, who distances himself from it in a brutal way. He is a creator, and at that time he didn’t know what social implications his work would later have. It’s the same as what happened with Ferran.

A.L.: You’ve mentioned Bach and I’m going to talk about the average scientist. This scientist carries out some research, signs it with his name, and by doing this he takes ownership of the work that everyone in the laboratory has done, and of the history behind it. The scientist can ask for recognition (something which I understand) or he can ask for ownership of this knowledge.

Since 1980 things have become out of control. Since then it has been allowed to patent and claim intellectual property rights on anything. This means that it is possible that someone gets to keep everybody else’s work and rather than sharing it via scientific and knowledge networks, he shares it via the marketplace. And from there, the ideas start being listed on NASDAQ. We have to take it for granted that today a creator is an owner. It’s not his fault. It’s the fault of the cultural and leisure industries.

I admire creativity. It’s something which we need. But I think there’s a very important collective component, and that is why it’s immoral for author to want to be an owner. It’s an evil of our time.

I admire creativity. It’s something which we need.

E.G.: But recognition is justified for a reason. Someone who does something very different to what has already been done feels very insecure. He needs a certain amount of recognition to calm this fear.

A.L.: Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom dedicated her whole life to studying the idea of ‘the commons’ and came up with a series of rules to conserve it. One of them is recognizing the contributor. The pie belongs to everyone but the one who cooked it should be recognised. She’s a guardian of the continued existence of the commons. In hacker communities this is even more miraculous. You obtain recognition when you publish something, and publishing something benefits the community. There is only one way of obtaining recognition in the community: giving. As mothers do with their babies and older relatives. When you give, you become an author.

T.S.: Every year, Ferran, in his obsession for not repeating what he had already done, decided to give away the recipes which he had invented that season.

A.L.: That is what scientists have done their whole lives until they decided to become owners. Before that, the only way of gaining recognition was to publish what you knew. And the more people copied you, the more recognition you gained. That stopped you from publishing the same thing again the next day. That’s why we have always felt a sort of veneration towards science. Until we made it into a community of owners who want to live like footballers, earning a lot of money for doing not a lot.