Is forming the public as “other” part of professional identity?

Ian Welsh and Brian Wynne’s article “Science, Scientism and Imaginaries of Publics in the UK: Passive Objects, Incipient Threats” raises many questions about how scientists, engineers, and other professionals respond to public opinion.  What I found interesting was how implicit the assumption seemed to be that the public was an “other” to scientific experts.   There were different models of how scientists viewed the public, but there did not seem to be a model where scientists viewed themselves as part of a public in decision-making.   Welsh and Wynne assume that expertise always creates a boundary.

This becomes puzzling when one appreciates that scientists presumably drink the same water, and breath the same air, as the general public.   On the other hand, as an engineer working on commercial aircraft, I have seen this first hand.  We flew on the same aircraft as the general public, with all of the same hassles.  On one hand, we did have some of the knowledge that the public did not have.  We knew, for instance, that an aircraft actually gets more fresh air per person than most buildings do- but we also knew why the aircraft could still be uncomfortable.  Yet the response was often to be dismissive of any suggestion that flying was not as comfortable as it could be.

  • And this was when we were very much “like” our fellow travelers, since both Boeing engineers and air travelers are middle-class  What happens when the public is not middle-class college graduates?   What happens when experts have educational, economic, racial, and religious backgrounds that are different from the people their expertise represents?   Is this gap even bridgeable?

One Reply to “Is forming the public as “other” part of professional identity?”

  1. What an astute observation. Indeed, it’s fascinating to think that the three main imaginaries of “the public” Welsh and Wynne describe share the characteristic of “Otherness,” which is, in every case, deficient. If you think about the ascent of science as chronicled by Ehrenreich, the construction of “the public” as an inferior Other seems to be foundational to the birth, rise, and power of the technoscientific professions. Your post made me wonder whether this way of viewing the people a profession aims to serve can create not only benefits/privileges for the members of the profession, but also blindnesses that can compromise the work and wellbeing of the professionals themselves. What if the dismissive attitude you describe leads to overlooking technically relevant information that comes from the public? What if it fosters an exaggerated sense of confidence in the safety or necessity of specific technologies? Remember Glenn Gerstell, the Chair of the DC WASA Board of Directors, who said in his DC City Council testimony that he lives in DC too and drinks the water? Is it possible/likely that he too (as well as his family members) got exposed to very high levels of lead? Concerning your last question, some people (both in Flint and outside) have, indeed, questioned the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the VT team that intervened in Flint, given Flint’s demographics. Very important issue to think about further. Please feel free to raise in class.

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