Now we know

I guess we have all heard the comment, “You don’t want to know.”  If it is followed up with “but you need to know”, we usually listen.  I kind of thought of myself relatively well educated.  I felt I understand the risks of modern life relatively well.  I always wear my seat belt.  I go to the doctor regularly for check-ups and cancer screenings.  But, I had no idea about Flint.  Worst, I was living in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area when the lead poisoning went on there, and I remember very little of it.

Last semester I learned that all the creeks and rivers in the Washington, D.C. area are so polluted with PCB’s that the Virginia Dept. of Wildlife recommends you limit yourself to eating only one fish a month caught in this area and you never  eat fatty fish (e.g. carp) caught around here.  Now the bad news is running into my house from the pipes.  My home is no longer a refuge, it is the contaminant.

We started the semester questioning the relationship between experts and the public and how power and justice are distributed.   We learned more and more about the water crisis in D.C. and Flint.  We had engaging and thoughtful  guest speakers.  We were able to interview someone who was on the ground in Flint and get to learn their story.  And yet, I end the class with a feeling of powerlessness.  I even ask myself, wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the ignorant bliss of a few months ago?  I can skip eating fish from the creek.  I cannot skip drinking water.

So, the question is where do we go from here?  Is water quality and environmental justice a new project for everyone?  Was this class a sophisticated recruitment  vehicle?  The problem is this – if a Flint-type situation occurred in our neighborhood in the future, I think we would be better equipped to deal with the situation.  We would at least know to call Yanna.  But, could we forgive ourselves for not doing something about it sooner, because we know.  Now we know.

The many faces of safe water marginalization

We have seen many different views on marginalization in our readings this semester and we have discussed the topic extensively in class.  One thing stands out to me from these readings and discussions.  That thing is power!  The marginalized lack the power and the dominant have it.  Without power, one lacks voice.  One lacks influence.  One lacks basic security of their person.  Further damage to the powerless is that the marginalized story may never be told or if it is told it will be spun in favor of the dominant forces in society.  Why then is it so important for the marginalized story be told?

To this questions, we have answered three basic things.  First was the idea that local marginalized knowledge can be valuable knowledge.  It can help us do better science, as shown in Wynne’s study of Cumbrian sheep farmers.  Next, bringing voice to the marginalized promotes democratic ideals.  The dominant groups with power get their voices heard.  If we are really dedicated to democracy, should not all voices be heard?  As Bohman suggests, deliberative democracy must be sought after.  It does not spontaneously generate.  Third, the voices of the marginalized can also be beneficial to other groups and to society at large.  This idea was put forth in our readings last week by Wehling, Viehover and Koenen.

So, we have three strong reason to seek out the marginalized voice, but there is still the question of where to find this voice.  This week we read the work of Sandra Harding, who puts a new dimension on what it means to be marginalized.  Harding reminds us that marginalization and lack of power is not necessarily associate with being economically disadvantaged.  Harding takes the question of marginalization to the epistemological level.  As Fricker pointed out the epistemic injustice of sexism, Harding expands the epistemic injustice to include other powerless positions that are marginalized, such as race, gender, ethnic background, religion, age and community.   The idea of marginalized community is especially pertinent to the Flint and Washington DC cases of lead poisoning.

If we look at Flint, we see what I will call a classic marginalization of a disadvantaged community.  The marginalization is occurring on political (governor take-over), economic (poor and budget crisis), racial (minority) and health (lead poisoning) levels.  But, in the case of Washington DC, the marginalization is taking place on different levels.  The worst community hit in Washington DC was not poor, lacking political savvy, or a high minority concentration.   The community had power in all those community aspects.  Where the community lacked power was in the management of safe drinking water.  The community also lacked a knowledge of water quality.  Unlike Flint where many knew the water was bad due to the taste and smell (not to mention the rashes), the water in Washington DC appeared safe and unchanged.  To me, this really shows the different faces of marginalization and lack of power.  You would not think of this community as being marginalized, but it was.  It had little power over the water coming from the pipes and permanent brain damage to your children qualifies as marginalization, despite the community wealth.  I conclude that if you rely upon any municipal water source in the US, you are a marginalized community.  It is not a question of whether you are being lead poisoned, but how much?

Charles Dickens told the story of the poor and powerless in London.  He spoke for the poor with emotionally captivating fictional individuals such as Tiny Tim in the Christmas Carol.  Similarly, Karl Marx spoke for the poor of the same historical period telling the story of the poor and powerless with his material historical analysis.  Marx give voice to the proletariat.   Who then will speak for the powerless and marginalized concerning safe drinking water?  It is a story of the poor and the rich.  It is a story of communities without power and communities with power.  It’s everyone!  There are many faces to clean water marginalization, but they all have one thing in common.   All believe that the water in their glass is safe.  Are we powerless to confirm this?  And if lead is present are we powerless to do anything about it?  Lead knows not who it poisons, it just poisons.  Welcome to the marginalized world everyone.


Bohman, J. (1996). Public deliberation: pluralism, complexity, and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

“Harding, S. 2005. Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity”? In A. E. Cudd and R. O. Andreasen, eds., Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Wehling, P., Viehöver, W., & Koenen, S. (2015). The public shaping of medical research: patient associations, health movements and biomedicine. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wynne, B. (n.d.). May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert–Lay Knowledge Divide. Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology,44-83.




Why do we trust the local government?

As we just celebrated the Fourth of July and the big group hug that all Americans take, we have an opportunity to ask why Americans trust the government?  Some might argue that we do not trust the government that much.  If we are talking about the Federal government, the case is true. Gallop polls  show that from the early 1970’s to 2016 the trust Americans had in the federal government went down from 70% to 44%.  We dropped below the 50% trust point in 2006.  That is quite a drop in those decades.  Interesting to note is the fact that faith in the media has dropped even worst during this timeframe from 68% to 32%.  Surprisingly, American’s trust is local government went up from 63% to 71% in this same period.  How do we account for this?

Just this past week I received my quarterly water bill from the Fairfax Water, which is the non-profit public utility that supplies water to northern Virginia and over two million people.  With the bill was their summer newsletter, “Straight from the tap.” Right away the newsletter evoke “straight talk”, which is a virtue most Americans find appealing.  In the newsletter there is a warning about scammers targeting customer.  Clearly, Fairfax Water looks out for their customers.  There are announcements of the major water projects under way.  Clearly, Fairfax water is investing in the community infrastructure.  There is a Kid’s coloring contest with back to school prizes.  Clearly Fairfax water cares about the kids.  There is a advertisement to go paperless for our bill and water saving tips.  Clearly, Fairfax Water is looking out for the environment.   Looking at this newsletter, why wouldn’t I trust the local government?  The newsletter suggests that they really care.

BUT, there is a notice of the release of the annual water quality report.  It’s the report that federal law says they have to create, but they are not sending copies and Fairfax Water has not burdened any of the customers with a summary of the finding.  If you want to know the results you must actively seek a copy via mail or find it on the web.  Seek the report I did and the URL can be found at the bottom of this post.  The good news is that our water quality is excellent according to the general manager and his dedicated team of scientists, operators, engineers, and field technicians.  To their credit, lead in water is specifically addressed on three of the 28 pages.  The good news is that the Fairfax Water system contains no lead pipes and is below the Lead and Copper pipe trigger of 15 ppb.  The bad news (if you continue reading the small print on the slide) is that your house may have a lead connector pipe.  Concerned water users should flush pipes for 30 seconds and consider using filters.  Everything sounds like it is under control.

The people of Washington, D.C. and Flint, Michigan trusted that the government was doing the right thing and protecting them.  In Flint, it was reported that many residents kept using the water even as they experienced problem of taste, smell and skin reaction.  But, the authorities said the water was OK.  The mayor drank a glass of the water on TV.  Why would the government lie about the water?  Looking at the Fairfax Water newsletter, the normal populous must have an impression of an organization of experts dedicated to safe water.  Even if the water quality report is hard to understand, why would we not trust them?

There is a warning about drinking from water hoses.  The plastic in hoses are not food grade, but there is nothing about lead pipes in the newsletter, only on the report.  How about a summary of the water quality in the newsletter, say maybe on page 1?  Would I ever know that as a homeowner I am responsible for the lead connector pipe to my house looking at this newsletter or the more detailed report?  I think not.  Trust means the hard stuff like lead, not just the easy stuff like water conservation and drinking from garden hoses.  With this newsletter I trust, with the example of Flint, I doubt all.


Fairfax Water Straight from the Tap Summer 2017

Scientist as Expert, Superman and Superwoman

Robert Merton was on a quest.  Science has been very successful in his lifetime.  Science split the atom and cured polio among other things.  Science has delivered the “goods”.  Merton’s quest is a functionalist one.  He looks at the scientific community and tries to identify the “special” things at play in science that do not occur in society at large.  What does he find?  Merton tells us that the scientific community plays by different social rules.  Specifically, Merton argues that scientific communities are ruled by universalism (impersonal criteria for truth), communism (common ownership of ideas), disinterestness (rational objective motivation) and Organized Skepticism (show me!).   When scientist follow all of these rules, they act as supermen and superwomen, as they put aside all the normal human motivations of success, greed, power and other special interest.

There are those that disagree with Merton.  An easy violation of scientific norms is fraud, such as Piltdown Man.  Mitroff Looked at the Apollo space project.  He found that the scientists who worked on the project were anything but disinterested.  They had an extreme emotional commitment to the project.

Another to disagree is Michael Mulkay.  Mulkay shows that scientist routinely violate these norms.  But, Mulkay goes further than breaking the rules and points out that sometime scientific norms are as odds, where one norm is broken in order to follow another.  Mulkay gives us the example of the book “Worlds in Collision” by Immanuel Velikovsky.  The book proposed that historical catastrophes on Earth were the result of near collisions with large bodies.  Other scientists saw this as pseudo-science and would not even read it.  The norms of organized skepticism and disinterestness were being ignored because the scientists through the claim was inconsistent with the laws of mechanics.  Here, protection of established truths are held as more important than other scientific norms.  OF course, this raises the ideas of Kuhn.

Kuhn argues that it is not rules of the community that make science, but it is the agreement of ideas that creates the scientific paradigm.  Scientific behavior is the problem solving done within the paradigm.  Mitroff, Mulkay and Kuhn are correct, then the norms of science that Merton describes seem to be more like cognitive norms, rather than social ones.  When looking at actual scientific behavior, the norms of science are always in negotiation.  What does this say about the role of scientist out in the community?  There seems to be some social assets available for the scientist when they are at large in the lay community.  But, the violation of these superman and superwoman rules could cost or add to veracity.  Emotional attachment may bring greater acceptance by a lay communities.  But, taking the spotlight and appearing on TV all the time as the “expert” may squander good feelings.  The bottom line is that the expert status of the scientist in the lay community is always in negotiation and tied to the place.  What works in one community may not work in another.  An expert today may be the forgotten tomorrow.



Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 1962

Merton, Robert, The sociology of science, 1973

Mitroff, Ian, American Sociological Review, 1974

Mulkay, Michael, Some Aspects of cultural growth in science, Social Research 1969


Ethnography: Soft science with hard results

Last week we began reading about the ethnographic method.  First, I wanted to share a definition of ethnography that I have always greatly admired.  Clifford Geertz argued for a “thick” ethnographic study of culture.  Thick meaning that a simple explanation in a complex culture will always be inadequate.  Thick analysis not only looks at culture from multiple perspectives, but also penetrates the psychology.  In thick analysis, the values, the logics, the reasoning are as important as the behaviors, which we should recognize as a challenge to a simple functionalist explanation.

One thing that struck me about our reading is the idea that we explicitly make ourselves an instrument of study in ethnography.  But when you think about it, many STS studies suggest that this is always the case, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even in the hard or physical sciences, STS studies show how the social is always present.  Examples of this would include Kuhn ideas on the social organization of scientific knowledge (i.e. paradigms) and Latour’s analysis of Louis Pasture inviting the social into the lab.

This idea of embracing the social nature of analysis contrasts very strongly with some of my personal experiences in the social sciences back in the 1980’s.  In 1984, I was developing a master’s thesis proposal in sociology.  This was unique time for sociology as it seemed to be struggling to become a quantitative “science”, requiring advanced statistical analysis for most studies at the time.  This was prior to the post-modern movement and the science wars, which I think dialed sociology back to the qualitative side a bit.

During the thesis proposal process, I had two tenured sociology professors specifically call me into their offices after my proposal was first circulated.  Both of them said the exact same thing, which was, “Nobody cares what your opinion is or what you have to say.  You the ideas of someone who counts and then you add to their thinking.  The only thing that matters is what the data tells us.”   The implication was very clear to me.  I took my thesis more quantitative or they would go out of their way to block any kind of qualitative thesis.  Sociology graduates coming out of that program needed to be quantitative scientists.

So, I spent the next few months looking at a survey data that I could associate with my research question and on a daily basis I infusing that data with profound social opinions, such as grouping the data by artificial categories of age, gender, income, education, community and opinion that I made up.  For example, I could not say that individuals who were anti-abortion and pro-school prayer were linked by conservative ideology, but I could twist data just about any way I wanted and then pronounce the two linked if I had a chi square that was sufficient.  This is using the scientific method, so it has to be good.  Right?  Sociology in 1985 wanted a theory, hypothesizes, data and conclusions.  The rich ethnographic studies of the 1920’s Chicago school seemed a distant past at that time.  Thick study of culture?  Or, a thick headed attempt to science up a social phenomenon?

Ethnography proposes an alternative course to knowledge.  Ethnography is inductive in nature.  The ethnographer starts by building up the data from actual participants and then drawing conclusions.  The statistical analysis of the 1980’s took national opinion survey data and then extrapolated to everyone else in society, even those communities where no survey participant lived.  Ethnography actually connects with the individuals that are being studied.  This is why I am so looking forward to completing some ethnographic research this summer.


Latour, Bruno ,Give Me a Laboratory and I will Raise the World in Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, eds., Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, London and Beverly Hills; Sage, 1983, pp. 141-170.


Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.


Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2012.



What’s all this about the EPA?

Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were both in occupied Copenhagen in 1941.  They met to discuss each other’s work in physics.  It has been reported that Bohr told Heisenberg that you can have clarity or you can have accuracy, but you cannot have both.  In Science and Technology Studies, we like to upstage the physicists by supplying neither.   So here goes, with apologies to Professor Stephen A. Erickson for that last joke.

The Environmental  Protection Agency was created by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970.  The creation of the EPA was in response to the pollution crisis at that time, such as Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted that it caught fire in 1969.  Yes, the river caught fire and this was not the first time either.  So, two things the EPA has responsible for are clean water and clean air.  It would seem that everyone would want clean air and water, but why then are so many Republican lawmakers critics of the EPA?  Let’s start with breathing air.

I think most of us can agree that breathing clean air is nice, if not a natural right in terms of a clean natural environment to live and in terms of Locke and Jefferson’s ideas about natural born rights of all citizens for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   The EPA is charged with monitoring air quality enforcing the laws passed by Congress.  But, let’s look at the case of monitoring air outside of large chemical plants in Louisiana done by Gwen Ottinger.  The chemical plants tend to release air born toxins in quick bursts.  The concentrations are short lived and are usually noticed by all the people living around the plants.  They loose their breath and their eyes start to water.  If you were the EPA, that is when you want to test the air, but that is not when the EPA tests the air.  The EPA gathers data over a 24 hour period and then averages the data over that time.  A very large quick release violating regulations can become perfectly legal averaged over 24 hours.  It almost seems that the monitoring methods of the EPA were created by the chemical industry.  What about water?

We have to start with Flint Michigan.  They were basically lead poisoned by their municipal government.  Many studies of drinking water have shown that it is not a question of “if” we are lead poisoned in the USA, but only how much.  How is water tested?  Research by Yanna Lambrinidou suggests that the EPA does the exact opposite of air monitoring for water monitoring.  Air monitoring is done over long aggregate periods, but water monitoring is done in very isolated snap-shots.  Snap-shots can completely miss grains of lead that tend to break off in lead pipes.  Further, lead pipes do not leach in regular patterns and may not be system wide.  Lead can be poisoning one house, while the house next door is relatively safe.  Like air monitoring, it almost seems like the monitoring methods of the EPA were created by the water utility industry.

In the examples of both air and water,  the monitoring and the enforcement of the federal laws seem very sympathetic to the industries being regulated.  This is not to say that the EPA is just a shill for industries.  I am sure there are many at the EPA who take their jobs and responsibilities very serious.  But at the same time, the fact that two different methods of monitoring (aggregate and shap-shot) just happen to be perfectly aligned to the industry that can benefit the most does bring one to pause and think.  Even more of a paradox is why Republican law makers would want to do away with the EPA.  With the EPA created by the Republicans, one might think of it as a great opportunity to take credit for clean air and water.  I guess in our era of anti-government sentiments, that is not an option.

One might still caution the dismantling of the EPA on grounds other that clean air and water.  Following a ‘watered down” regulatory structure should still give industries a legal refuge.  In other words, if our water utilities are poisoning us with lead, as long as they are in compliance with EPA rules for safety, there is a civil law push back.  But what if the EPA goes away?  There are all the scientific studies available that show the harmfulness of lead in the water that utilities must make themselves aware, otherwise they have not performed due diligence and may open themselves up for civil action.   If the EPA is still around and a utility is following their guidelines, that is the legal standard and the EPA standard seems to be a pretty low bar.  The bottom line is that everyone deserves clean water and clean air.  The current incarnation of the EPA provides some protection and that protection is for both citizens and corporations and utilities.  Doing away with the EPA may be very short sighted as it could open corporations and utilities to civil risk not present in today’s softball regulatory game.  Are the EPA monitoring methods clear or accurate?  Oh say can you see if the river is still burning?