Poisoned Water

Documentary – Poisoned Water: What exactly went wrong in Flint—and what does it mean for the rest of the country?    Airing on PBS 31 May 2017, 7-9pm

Should we equalize the authority of citizens in regulatory science?

Richard Sclove asserts in his book, Democracy and Technology, that, given equal opportunity, non-scientists can not only understand technical information, but that they can also contribute to new scientific knowledge (Sclove, 1995, 50). He further argues that whether a non-scientist can grasp complex technical information is not the real problem. He contends that the real problem is the reverse argument – scientists making technical decisions without understanding the societal or political implications:

“Those who argue against lay involvement in socio-technological decision making often seem to be alluding to horrendous decisions and social consequences that they know will ensue. Yet review of actual experience with lay participation does not yield a bumper crop of disastrous decisions. After all, it was not panels of laypeople who designed the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plants; who created the conditions culminating in tragedy at Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India, pesticide factory; who bear responsibility for the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger; or who enabled the Exxon Valdez oil spill” (ibid., 50).

Sclove argues that new scientific knowledge and technology are, “ineradicably value-laden and specific to particular cultural contexts, and thus should never be a candidate for monopolized production by supposedly impartial experts” (ibid., 50).

Sclove, Richard E. (1995). Democracy and Technology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Federal Register Notice

The lead modeling public peer review meeting will be held on June 27 and 28, 2017 in Washington DC. The registration deadline to attend the meeting in-person or via teleconference, and to request to make a brief oral statement at the meeting, is June 22, 2017.

What is Regulatory Science?

Regulatory science is created, “through evolving systems of framing, classification, calculation, and control,” with the goal of, “producing a new state of technologically improved, or designed, nature” (Jasanoff, 2005, 95). According to Jasanoff, regulatory science is the mechanism for providing legitimacy to basic science when it encounters society. She calls this effort normalization. It signals the starting point of the process where public trust institutions (such as EPA or OSHA) make agreements with society about risk. Jasanoff discusses how regulatory science can be used as a mechanism to normalize scientific innovations that have a tremendous impact on the public. This attempt at normalization, typically driven by industry, is an attempt to create legitimacy by making, “vague, unnamed, and unbounded fears,” into, “specific and tractable” ideas (Jasanoff, 2005, 95).

Jasanoff posits that the normalization of regulatory science typically would bring, “public perception back in line with the rational risk calculations made by experts” (Jasanoff, 2005, 99). In most events the normalized regulatory science would not be challenged. The authority of that regulatory science and its risk standards would stand as the measure of what society could consider safe. She argues that this, “apparent closure of controversy was achieved in a period of American deregulation that reduced the type and intensity of scrutiny,” established by regulatory science. (Jasanoff, 99). Expert, and other regulatory agencies would interpret this, “lowering of skeptical oversight as evidence that the research was acceptably safe, but the stability of this conclusion strongly depended on the credibility of the U.S. regulatory process as a whole” (Jasanoff, 2005, 100).

So what do we as a society think about that credibility? Can we find examples when designated experts (EPA, OSHA, utilities, etc) have used this normalized “legitimacy” to defend themselves from liability? Do experts claim the authority of science to support their conclusions and test results regarding the safety of – for example – drinking water? How does society challenge this regulatory science? Or better yet – how does society get involved in its creation?

Jasanoff, Sheila. (2005). Designs on Nature. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.