Last semester I took Introduction to Science and Technology Policy where we spent a little time on the idea of coproduction. Therefore, when reading and talking about “Street Science” in this class, those ideas came storming back and I wanted to use this opportunity to share with you a paper we read with respect to coproduction. I also wanted to use this to reflect a little on the idea of science being impacted by non-scientists.
So first of all, the story I wanted to share (the class I took involved a ton of reading and this was by far my favorite article we read). The article I will paraphrase for you is “Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science” by Brian Wynne. This is the story of sheep farmers in England after the Chernobyl radioactive fallout. They were first told by scientists that there were going to be no effects from the disaster on their livelihoods, however this changed when the sheep living in the Cumbria fell-top area were found to have radioactive contamination. The government but a ban on sheep meat that came from this area and reassured the farmers that it wouldn’t last long because the radioactive levels would fall quickly… but the levels didn’t, and the ban didn’t end quickly. For the next several years the scientists stuck with their story that the levels would soon fall, and the farmers became very impatient and annoyed with the scientists. The farmers developed their own theory for the source of the contamination when the “experts” claims were failing. They suspected that the contamination was actually coming from a chemical and nuclear facility in the area that had a history of environmental contamination, however the scientist were confident that this was not the source. Farmers believed the scientists were overconfident to the point of ignorant. One farmer pointed out the the steam from the cooling towers of this facility hit the tops of the surrounding hills and that was where the radioactive hot spots were. Eventually the farmers got more involved in the science of their problem and asked the government for pre-Chernobyl data to which they received only post-Chernobyl data, or data from only low areas and not the fell-tops (higher areas). This indicates that the government had seen high levels of radioactivity in these areas and covered it up, then Chernobyl gave them the opportunity to pin it on someone else. Although the scientists were unaware of this dishonesty from the government, they would have benefited greatly from listening to the local knowledge.
Wynne uses this example to critic scientists’ view towards non-scientists. His main point is that when scientific findings are challenged by a non-science group, most scientists will react by assuming this group doesn’t understand and needs more education. He challenges scientists to instead assume that they themselves are wrong and need more education from the non-science group.
So why are scientists so reluctant to trust the knowledge of people outside of the scientific community on issues we are “experts” on? When the idea of coproduction was first introduced to me I must admit I didn’t think it made much sense. Why should I listen to someone who isn’t studying as much as I am on an issue that I am an expert on? Then the more I thought about it and after reading this case study, it made me realize that although people are not in the scientific community, they are still experts in what they do. The sheep farmers spent their entire lives studying their land, and their sheep. Who are we to question them about their knowledge?
While paraphrasing this study I left out quite a because it is a very long article and I didn’t want to write to much and bore you all. I would encourage you to read it though, I thought the interviews that he does with the farmers were especially insightful and show how ignorant science is not trusted by those outside the scientific community. And to state a conflict of interest, I grew up on a farm which could contribute to me liking this case study so much.