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.

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6 Replies to “Should we equalize the authority of citizens in regulatory science?”

  1. Thanks for the reference. I must read this book! Why do you think Sclove’s message (written over 10 years ago), which echoes other writings as well, is still in many ways “new”? I suspect it would surprise many (if not most) people, including scientists, today.

  2. I suspect it feels ‘new’ because, as a society, we still have not equalized the authority of citizens (read those impacted by risk) and experts. Knowing we need to do this is just the beginning. Do we have any viable frameworks for application? Is the idea of professions being innately ethical (Saks) preventing this change? Do we still have a hidden class problem in the U.S.? Why didn’t Saks talk about soldiers, police officers, or fire fighters instead of focusing on doctors and lawyers? These ‘occupations’ also have a code, require lots of training and serve the public. For creation of viable frameworks – maybe we need to think locally. Would risks impacts be different if local leaders were responsible for setting risk standards? They are to a certain extent – but would it be different without a federal backstop? Would it be worse?

    1. Yes. I really like your questions. I think I would add one about power here too. Regarding viable frameworks, I have found it fascinating to see and experience a marked gap between a) EPA’s stated commitment to environmental justice principles for the making of environmental policy (the principles require meaningful and diverse public participation), and b) how EPA actually puts these principles into practice. In my view, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) work group on which I participated treated public voices mostly as a nuisance. Happy to share more if you’d like. I think Saks focuses on doctors because he argues that, to the eyes of most, medicine meets all criteria of a “profession.” In other words, it’s the least contested as a profession and, therefore, can serve as an exemplary case study. I am fascinated by your suggestion about local leaders setting risk standards. Would like to know more.

  3. As a child of the space age, I was taught that scientists knew best, with their white lab coats and clip boards. The issue for me is one of boundaries. Should lay people trend on the sacred ground of the scientific expert. All science can impact the public, but regulatory science is certainly one that has a direct tie. An argument against lay involvement would be that the lay-person is not qualified. What can a local tell the nuclear plant physicist she does not already know? That is the exact point of Brian Wynne’s study of Cumbrian sheep farmers. Wynne calls this the “deficit model”, where the lay-person has a deficit of knowledge and cannot add to the equation. But as Wynne shows, the sheep farmer knew more about the nature of the radiation in their valley than the expert knew. What I see as the real STS challenge is how to let in legitimate local knowledge, but keep out the professional merchants of doubt, such as the case of climate change and the puppets of the carbon energy industry who exploit scientific uncertainly for economic gain.

    1. I wonder what you think now — given your training in STS — about the lessons you received as a child about science. How do you feel about being the recipient of these lessons at a time in your life when you had no capacity to question or challenge them? I agree that the “lay person” is presumed to not be qualified, and I also appreciate Wynne’s excellent work. Having done ethnographic interviews of residents in DC and Providence, RI concerning their first-hand experiences with the LCR’s LSL replacement program, I too can say that the reverse can be true as well: technoscientific experts involved in policy-making can lack crucially relevant and important information about a) the strengths, weaknesses, and effectiveness of a policy when it is actually implemented, as well as b) the priorities, goals, and moral frameworks of the people that the policy aims to benefit. In the case of the LCR, for example, I have yet to meet a resident who finds it morally defensible that the LCR allows for up to 10% of sampled homes to dispense any level of lead whatsoever, while at the same time giving water utilities the ok to claim their water is safe. Your last question seems to me like an enormous challenge, indeed. How, by whom, and based on what criteria of evidence should decisions about “sound” versus “unsound” science be made? In the case of lead in water, for example, the medical, public health, and environmental establishments continue to openly declare that lead at the tap poses a minor, if any, risk to human health. From their perspective, local knowledge of parents who establish with certainty that their child’s lead poisoning came from the water is worth dismissing. From an STS perspective, who are the merchants of doubt in this scenario?

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