We’ve been looking, over most of this semester, in great detail at what went wrong in Flint and DC during their lead water crisis, and at the flawed rules for lead in water safety. We’re getting one model of expertise and interaction with the public, but is it a complete model?
Looking at the discussion of how Rachel Carson prepared “Silent Spring” was a revelation. Here we have a technical expert who had a goal, and a clearly calculated model for sharing her knowledge of the subject with the public. (I’ve realized that I really need to read “Silent Spring,” even if the scientific information is not as relevant anymore.)
The interesting thing is Ms. Carson might not be considered an expert in the scientific sense- she had no major discoveries. She was, however, a skillful synthesizer of what was discovered by the scientific community. Does that make her a truer “expert,” in the sense that she did not have an agenda of pushing her own work? Are masterful science writers or science policy makers experts, publics, or somewhere in between?
There’s the case of climate scientists, who are at the opposite extreme from the experts we’ve been looking at. Instead of scientists refusing to take knowledge from non-experts seriously, we’re dealing with non-scientists refusing to take “expert knowledge” seriously, Are these just the result of a failure to message as effectively as Ms. Carson did? Or is somehow the flip side of the expert/non-expert divide we’ve been working around?
Reading through Robert Musil’s “Rachel Carson and Her Sisters,” I was struck by how closely the author argued that “Silent Spring” was heavily influenced by her network of colleagues throughout her life.
I couldn’t help but wonder why we are so reluctant to define scientists in this manner. We find that popular accounts of scientists are often built around a “lone genius” stereotype of Einstein coming up with relativity on his own. We do this even though we know that Einstein was swimming in a community of scientists questioning the limits of classical mechanics.
Does this model change how we perceive scientists and engineers interacting with non-experts? We see discussion of the interaction of Marc Edwards and other experts with the Flint water crisis. These obscure that Professor Edwards functioned as part of a team of researchers at Virginia Tech when looking at the lead levels. We are writing out graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and technicians from the story.
If we are writing out highly trained people who work with the lead scientist on a project like this, doesn’t that make it easier to write out the non-expert as well? Ignoring the narrative of a lab head sharing authority with his or her grad students makes it easier to embrace a narrative where non-scientists are passive bystander.
Does ignoring that scientists function internally with each other, with different levels of experience and expertise, make it easier to write off non-scientists as non-experts?