Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wynne, Brian “Misunderstood misunderstandings” (pp. 19-46)

Misunderstanding Science?  The Public Reconstruction of Science & Technology (1996)

A case study of hill sheep-farmers of the Lake District of northern England that were affected not only by Chernobyl, but also the nuclear reactors at Sellafield (formerly Windscale).  Wynne examines the interplay between social and cultural identities, especially those of the sheep-farmers, as they see themselves threatened by the scientists interventions.  What is revealed is arrogance on the part of the scientists who discount the local knowledge of the sheep-farmers, even when that knowledge is essential to understanding the scientific issue at hand, namely radioactive contamination.

The relationship between the scientists and the sheep-farmers is further undermined by the lack of full disclosure on the part of the scientists, and also by the changing assertions of the scientists.  At first they said there would be no effects from Chernobyl, but six weeks later (20 June 1986) the Minister for Agriculture announced a ban on sheep sales and movement in several of the affected areas.  Once the scientists had admitted the contamination, they insisted that the initially high cesium levels would fall soon, but their predictions were based upon a false scientific model.  Their model was based upon empirical data of alkaline clay soils, not the acid peaty soil found in these upland areas.

The degree of certainty that the scientists expressed in their statements denied the ability of the farmers to cope with ignorance and lack of control, and the degree of standardization of knowledge denied the variation of the conditions in the region from their models and even from farm to farm.  We thus see scientists inappropriately applying their specialized knowledge and not acknowledging the specialized knowledge of the sheep-farmers, but where the farmers were willing to work with the scientists, the scientists did not seem to be willing to work with the farmers.

The distrust that the farmers soon came to have for the scientists, and then for the government that was employing them, also caused the farmers to question the government’s assertions about Sellafield.  The scientists asserted that contamination from Chernobyl could be distinguished from contamination due to Sellafield, thus making Chernobyl a convenient cover or scape goat for previous misdeeds.  As the distrust grows you transition from considering the scientists merely as arrogant, to thinking that maybe there has been some kind of coverup or conspiracy, all of which only serves to further undermine the public’s trust and understanding of science.

Wynne sees the conflict as one between social identities, both groups, the scientists and the sheep-farmers, have their identity threatened by the other.  These sorts of conflicts bring to light the whole issue of knowledge systems and the problems that arise when formal knowledge systems interact with informal ones.  The formal knowledge systems often don’t know how to acknowledge or understand the informal knowledge systems because the former have a hard time quantifying the latter.  The problem may simply be one of communication, these two types of knowledge systems simply may not speak the same language, or, even worse, they may speak the same language but mean subtly different things.

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