By Chris Brain, Stroud District Green party
The ideas in this discussion paper were used as the basis for the Cafe Discussion group meeting on 24th February 2006 in Stroud.
Public Understanding of Science
One of the most common statements made by, self-appointed, representatives of science is that there would be no problem with the public acceptance of new developments if only people understood the science. This statement has its roots in a perspective of the public understanding of science known as the deficit model (Durant, 1993). The deficit model identifies a lack of knowledge of science amongst the public, decides that this is the reason why the public distrusts or is hostile to new developments in science and advocates the education of the public as a solution to this problem.
In the context of the GM debate it has been argued that opposition to GM crops is solely based on ignorance of the nature and behaviour of GM organisms (Felsot, 2002, Conko and Prakash, 2002). The lack of understanding of the public has been cited but a campaign to teach the public the science of GM crops has not been proposed. Surely theres a contradiction here, if the problem is lack of understanding then obviously the communication of knowledge is the answer. I think there could be two reasons why science kind of goes quiet and shuffles its feet when this point is put to it.
The first reason is that when proponents of science say people dont understand the science they are really complaining that people are not accepting the authority of science. Previous campaigns to raise the public understanding of science have been linked with a perceived lack of appreciation of science and concerns over the opposition to scientific developments (Gregory and Miller, 1998).
The second reason is that research into the public understanding of science has raised questions about the nature of science itself and what people should understand about it. Central to these new developments are new understandings about how science works and, consequentially new proposals about what people should know about science. The following phrase describes how the thinking on the subject of the understanding of science has developed, “understanding as knowing a lot of science, understanding as knowing how science works and understanding as knowing how science really works.” (Durant, 1993).
Up until the 1970s there was a general acceptance of the nature of science as being an objective, rational and logical pursuit of demonstrable truths through observations of the natural world (Merton, 1973). This perspective of science was characterised in methodology by the use of the scientific method and in ethos by the following of the Mertonian ideals (Merton, 1973). Both the infallibility of the scientific method and the adherence to the Mertonian ideals have been questioned by researchers and alternative perspectives of the nature of science put forward.
Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch used the analysis of scientific controversies to show science as “a lumbering fool who knows neither its own strength nor the extent of its clumsiness and ignorance” (Collins and Pinch, 1993). They portray science as a fallible, untidy pursuit that has little to do with logic or rationality. In their context the Mertonian ideals are little in evidence, supplanted by the more human qualities of ambition, subjectivity and selectiveness.
Bruno Latour presents a view of science as the double headed god Janus, viewing the past in one perspective and the future in another, presenting one view to the scientific community and another to the public (Latour, 1987). Latours view of science is more like a military campaign, marshalling resources in order to attain set out objectives, rather than an objective investigation towards an unknown truth. His perspective is particularly revealing when considering sciences role in the GM debate. It appears to me that within science uncertainty is acknowledged and the admittance of uncertainty is applauded as good science but when science is presented to the public the assumption that science has all the answers is implicit.
From studying the relationship between science and the public from the views of sociologists of science the view can be formed that problems in communication and understanding are caused not by a deficit in the public but by a lack of clarity and communication of the true nature and value of science. From a sociological perspective it can be argued that the true nature of science has always been hidden by the myths of the infallible scientific method and the objectivity of logic and rationality, but a picture of the true nature of science has further been confused by the development of science in the 20th century.
Scientific Development, Science and Industry
The story of the development of science in the 20th Century is one of massive growth, specialisation and collectivisation, but above all commercialisation. The aspect of science that sets it apart from any other cultural activity is its ability to produce practical applications.
This ability has led science to be funded to the tune of billions of dollars per year. This funding has led to the massive growth of science, growth in its physical size and growth in its presence and importance in society. Unfortunately this massive boon to science has not come without a cost, a change in the activity of science. Science in the 19th Century is perceived as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake conducted by amateur gentlemen in backroom laboratories. Science as an activity in the 21st century has changed beyond all recognition since its pre-20th century incarnation. The development of science into a large-scale industry linked to production of commercial products has raised questions about the nature and role of science. What is the purpose of scientific research? Who owns and controls the products of science? And, is science independent? Or does it owe allegiance to any particular institution or culture?
Central to these questions are the role of morality and ethics in science. While the Mertonian ideals describe disinterestedness, the removal of any outside interest, political, religious or economic, from the pursuit of scientific truths (Merton, 1973), the activity of 21st Century science is inexorably linked to the practical outcome of scientific research. Modern scientific research requires funding, funding requires sponsors, the linking of sponsors to scientific research inevitably requires a linking between the desires of the sponsors and the potential outcome of the research. In an ideal world there would exist a huge pool of resources available to be dedicated to scientific research for the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world but in a world where very little is given for nothing. All potential sponsors, from the government to the military to the multinational company, require a return from their investment whether its export duty of consumer goods, higher enemy casualty figures or multimillion-pound bonuss for directors.
Whether or not the relationship between sponsors and scientific research has really led to a change in the nature of science or not is not as important, in the context of this paper, as to whether this relationship has led to a change in the public perception of science. If there is a new perception of science, as an industry like any other that can be bought and sold according to the demands of the market, then this new perception will profoundly affect the nature of sciences role in public debates such as that of GM crops. In the next section I will examine the nature of the public perception of science.
Public Perceptions and Trust
Many supporters of GM crops and, self-appointed, defenders of science would have us believe that public mistrust of GM crops, and by association, mistrust of science, is mainly due to ignorance and unsophisticated beliefs (Boulter, 1997). Evidence gained from actually consulting the public however has revealed a very different picture of the nature of the publics perception and trust.
Far from some peoples view of the public as essentially techno phobic, Luddite and perhaps primitive, surveys reveal that on the whole the publics enthusiasm for technology and confidence in scientific progress is remarkably high (Eurobarometer 58.0, 2003), but it is selective. Enthusiasm for computers and information technology in everyday life and confidence that they will improve day-to-day life in the future has been at a consistently high level for the last ten years, while enthusiasm and confidence in biotechnology has fluctuated but remained at a significantly lower level (Eurobarometer 58.0, 2003). When further questioned as to their opinions on different aspects of biotechnology more discrepancies are revealed. Medical applications, for example genetic testing for inherited diseases, receive the support of the majority questioned in every E.U. member state but GM food only receives majority support in four of the fifteen states that were surveyed (Eurobarometer 58.0, 2003).
So an analysis of surveys reveals that there is not a blanket lack of support and belief in scientific and technological progress but that the public possesses a sophisticated, selective perspective on new developments. The public do not regard science and technology as a whole entity with either unqualified support or uninformed hostility but rather as a range of new developments that each has different advantages and disadvantages. Further evidence of the sophistication of the publics perspective on science can be seen when we examine surveys that ask questions about trust. The lack of trust in science is as often bemoaned as the lack of understanding of science and it is in fact quite likely that when people say they want to increase the understanding of science they really mean they want to increase the unquestioning trust of science (Gregory and Miller, 1998).
Surveys have shown a slight decrease in the publics trust of science per se (SCST, 2000), but, when further questioned, people reveal not so much a lack of trust in science but rather a lack of trust in the people giving them the science. In fact compilation of a large number of wide ranging surveys has shown that the publics trust of scientific information varies widely according to its source. In Europe confidence in university scientists was found to be at a level of 76%, while confidence in scientists employed by industry was only at a level of 56% (Eurobarometer 58.0, 2003), NGOs were considered to be the trustworthiest source of scientific information ahead of university, government and industry (Bensen, 2000). There was also a considerable discrepancy in the trust of different kinds of NGOs, consumer organizations and large mainstream organizations had a 15% higher trust level than those perceived as more radical, campaigning pressure groups (Eurobarometer 58.0, 2003). The low levels of trust in scientific information from the sources of government and industry and the decreasing level of trust in scientific information from radical groups reflects a more general decrease in trust of these bodies and groups (Bensen, 2000). It appears that there is a general trend to place more trust in sources of information that are perceived to be independent than in government, industry or campaigning, agenda driven sources.
Public consultation in the form of surveys has revealed a complex and sophisticated perspective of scientific and technological progress. It appears to me that the varying level of approval of different areas of science and technological reveals a public understanding of cost/benefit analysis. Developments that are perceived to offer high potential rewards to society with low potential risks are greeted enthusiastically. Developments that are perceived to offer only rewards to the producers of the technology and potential risk to society, however small that risk is, are rejected. They also show that levels of trust of science are graduated according to the general level of trust that is placed in the individual or organization that is the source for a particular piece of scientific information. This varying level of trust reveals, I believe, a public understanding that scientific information does not carry automatic trustworthiness and authority but that its validity needs to be judged according to the trustworthiness of its advocate. The public, appear to be selecting sources of scientific information that they perceive to be independent from the self-serving motives of government and industry.
Scientific evidence clearly shows that gene flow is occurring and will increase as cultivation of GM crops grows. Scientific research has provided a clear and important contribution to the GM debate by providing evidence for gene flow, but scientific evidence that gene flow will harm diversity or that the presence of GM traits in food may be harmful to humans has not been provided. The scientific evidence that is available is not conclusive and is, therefore, open to different interpretations by people on different sides of the debate.
The two sides of the debate seem, broadly, to take different approaches to the presentation of scientific evidence to back up their positions. The approach of supporters of the use of GM crops tend to examine specific cases, in terms of one crop in one location and the research that has been done on it. Those opposed to the use of GM crops tend to draw from a wide range of cases to present a weight of suggestive evidence to argue for caution. Both of these approaches have their own drawbacks but on the whole, in the specific case of GM crops, I think the second approach presents a fairer overview of the state of scientific understanding.
Opponents of GM crops construct a weight of circumstantial evidence by drawing from different studies of different crops, bacteria, wild plants and areas of cultivation. When specific research is applied to one crop in one location it is extremely unlikely that the evidence will indicate a significant risk to animal/human health or the environment. It is only when looking at the use of GM crops as a whole that the accumulated evidence indicates a small but significant level of risk to the environment and human or animal health. If this weight of evidence is considered in combination with the view of some scientists that much more research needs to be done in this field then the balanced conclusion should be to employ caution when considering the use of GM crops.
The Communication of Scientific Knowledge
The communication of scientific knowledge cannot be considered without examination of the nature of science in general and the qualities of the specific knowledge in question.
The science of GM crops is science in the making (Gregory and Miller 1998), a time in the development of the understanding of a subject that is in constant flux. While the science of GM crops is in the making, definitive answers to specific questions cannot be given, but the general information available can be used to form arguments either in favour or in opposition to their use.
Understanding what science is and how it works is also an area of study that is in the making and may remain so. It may be that a sociological understanding of science can only be presented retrospectively, that an understanding of science cannot keep pace with the constantly changing nature of science. In studying this subject it must be remembered that social scientists have a desire to present natural science as vulnerable to the same criticisms that their own fields are and that natural scientists have the desire to distinguish their field from all others. In considering the value of science as a resource of knowledge we do not necessarily need to now facts about the nature of science but just keep in mind that there are questions on the authority of science.
Science often comes under public scrutiny during times of public debate on novel scientific and technological developments that may have far reaching social effects. The public perception of science, how it operates and how much it can be trusted, is defined during these times of public debate. Very often these times of debate coincide with a time of science in the making in fact the debate may be caused by the fact that science is at that stage and cannot, therefore, produce answers to specific questions. The future public perception of science and the value of the role that science can play in society will depend on how science behaves in the GM debate and future debates to come. If science is able to communicate an understanding of how science really works then a new relationship with the public could be created. A relationship in which the public trust science to contribute that which it is able to and no more, and science accepts its position in the debate as an informed participant but not a source of unquestioned authority.
References, Research Papers and Useful Sources.
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