What Kind of Accountability Does the Public Expect From Science?

Climate change is an endlessly useful example for examining issues of public science, and it was Jasanoff’s preferred case study in her talk that I discussed in my previous post. As I noted there, the notion of a constitution is an important aspect of Jasanoff’s views on public science, according to which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions – in particular their accountability to the publics they serve – are clearly outlined. One of the broad problems Jasanoff identified in the public aspect of climate change is that scientific institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (arguably the most important of all institutions regarding climate change – the largest in any case), do not have explicit standards of accountability.

Jasanoff implies that the IPCC is like what she calls the “fifth branch” of government in a US context – scientific advisement agencies that serve regulatory agencies such as the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States – these agencies constitute the unofficial “fourth branch” of government. However, I find this example peculiar. Certainly the IPCC is not a regulatory agency, nor does it serve a regulatory agency. It is an institution that attempts to bring about in as comprehensive as possible a manner the totality of current scientific knowledge about climate change (or at least this is an idealized version of its mandate). It has no legal jurisdiction, it can enact no policies, and nor is it a branch of any body that can do so (since the UN cannot pass any binding resolutions without the approval of constituent member states). 

Whether you buy her “fifth branch” metaphor or not, her broader argument is that constitutions are needed to curb the unaccountable power and authority of scientific institutions. But, arguably, the problem is that the IPCC has too little power, not too much. And more generally speaking, it is possible that climate scientists have too little power, not too much. Of course, the other side of a constitutional framework is that it would also outlines the rights of scientific institutions. But what rights does the IPCC have? Jasanoff focuses primarily on the responsibilities of scientific institutions to the public. But what about the responsibilities of the public? 

STS scholars have long called for a more polyphonous discourse on technoscientific issues, claiming that scientists and scientific institutions dominate debate and decision making. In my own studies on climate change in the Canadian media, I find that scientists can hardly be said to be the dominant authorities or spokespeople on climate change. They are vastly outnumbered by other actors: politicians, economists, pundits, lobbyists, industry spokespeople, environmentalists, activists, the general public and so on. Arguably, our current situation with climate change is what a more democratic science looks like. Is this what STS scholars had in mind?

Perhaps not; so let’s look more fairly at what they do have in mind. There are certainly many case studies in which public knowledge was superseded by expert knowledge, when retrospectively had the experts been more sensitive to local or public knowledge and concerns, the needs of the public would have been better met (or the public might have even avoided harm). A classic example is a case study by Brian Wynne on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on sheep in Cumbria in Northern England. Via rain systems, radioactive caesium found its way into ecosystems in Cumbria, which in turn ended up in sheep via grazing. Governmental restrictions were placed on the selling of these sheep. Despite assurances that the radioactive levels of the sheep would quickly subside, they persisted, resulting in financial hardships for sheep farmers who were unable to bring their livestock to market. One notable issue was that the regulatory scientists disregarded the farmers’ knowledge about sheep grazing habits, which in turn lead to problematic methods in trying to determine a control group for measuring the effects of the radiation. As the scientists’ continued assurances that radiation levels would soon subside we shown to be incorrect, a crisis of trust emerged, in which the farmers saw the scientists as arrogant, over-certain, and unforthcoming about the inherent uncertainty involved in their research.  Wynne’s case study can easily be interpreted in such a way that seems to demonstrate a constructivist attitude about science among the public. 

Jasanoff supposes the case of climate change is similar to this example. That is, there is a crisis of public trust, and it stems from scientists covering up uncertainty, over-stepping their authority, and perhaps neglecting the knowledge and concerns of the public. She offered the example of “climategate” and the “errors” made in the last IPCC report as causes of public scepticism. Before considering this contention, I would contend that the reasons for public scepticism about climate change are complex. I grow more and more doubtful that lack of public trust in scientists is one of the major contributing factors that leads to inaction on climate change. Jasanoff mused how people could seemingly trust the consensus of food critics on a matter as inherently subjective as “the best restaurant in the world”, yet not trust the consensus of thousands of qualified climate scientists. One of the reasons she gives is that the former doesn’t matter while the latter, if taken seriously and enforced, demands lifestyle-changing public action (or limitations on public action). This is possibly the chief reason that nothing gets done about climate change. Not to mention the massively funded propaganda campaigns, the disproportionate amount of industry power (if we want to talk about unconstitutional power, I mean, c’mon!) as compared to the power of bodies like the IPCC, deeply held ideologies of progress and technological optimism, and so on.

In any case, even if we do accept that there is a crisis of public trust with regards to climate change, it does not primarily stem from a principle of constructivism – the view that all science is socially constructed and thus none can meet the standards of “true” scientific knowledge. To the extent that the public acknowledges the constructedness of knowledge about climate change, it is in wholly asymmetrical ways. The “climategate” episode does not demonstrate that the public is reflexive about the inevitably constructed nature of science. Indeed, if it did, it wouldn’t have ended up being such a big deal, since it would have been unsurprising. The leaked CRU e-mails only became “climategate” precisely because the public (and loud voices in the media) expects science not to be constructed. Thus, while it is the case that the public loosely expect some constitutional guarantees from experts, they do not seem to be what Jasanoff has in mind. The public is willing to accept the authority of science insofar as it lives up to the ideals of objectivity, transparency, precision, and “facts” – all of the things that STS scholars find philosophically distasteful.

I once heard Wynne talk at a conference, and a question concerning the ways STS scholars could be engaged with regards to public science was raised. Wynne responded by saying that STS scholars should do two things. First, identify the case studies similar to his about Cumbrian sheep farmers – where the public’s knowledge and concerns are being disregarded in the face of scientific authority. And second, come to the aid of such disenfranchised groups by providing resources that STS scholars have to offer. While Wynne insisted that the concerns of the public were paramount, in that it was up to them to undertake political action however they saw fit, and up to them to identify the concerns, I found his position questionable, as it seemed to be not genuinely democratic.

STS scholars like Jasanoff and Wynne seem to encourage a more “democratic” vision of a expert governance insofar as the interests of the public can be aligned to their own theoretical perspectives. But otherwise, they are faced with a seemingly paradoxical situation. Do they only align themselves with the public concerns that resonate with their own political beliefs and motivations? What about the public concerns about science that rest precisely on the narratives that STS scholars have sought to expose as problematic? Are they then forced to enter the arena of public debate and explain to the public why their desires for more “objective,” more “fact-based” science are ill-conceived? In what sense can STS scholars be said to promote a more democratic approach to expert knowledge when the supposed public concerns and knowledge that they champion need to be inflected by another form of expert knowledge, that is, STS knowledge? Will we do any better at gaining the public’s trust?

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One thought on “What Kind of Accountability Does the Public Expect From Science?

  1. I think the insight STS brings in part to science, that will (in the long run) do better in gaining the public’s trust is the idea of science as a social *process*. This, luckily, aligns with (part of) scientists’ own founding myths about a continual (not endpoint-based) search for truth, and how we are ever grasping at better understandings, never the perfect one. Scientists seem inwardly divided on this–admitting that science is a contingent process and never done while at the same time wishing people would accept some things as rote rather than grounds of inquiry and contention–but to me this is because many scientists are, essentially, concerned with the public understanding THEIR science, not understanding science full stop. That is, if you wish people to understand evolution, you don’t want to fap about with questions of evidentiary standards and peer review and micro- versus macro-evolution; you want them to grasp that the overall process of evolution is simply *true* (or “extremely well-founded”) empirically. But all these other bits are part of inquiry and understanding, it’s just that a) they’re used by “political” interests (in the pejorative sense) to slow down the overall conversation, and b) it’s not the conversation evolutionary biologists want to have (and (c) it’s easy to get bogged down in “gotchas” outside of a genuine discourse rather than back-and-forths in the media, say). So scientists end up getting split between saying “you should simply believe this because the evidence is all there and if you’re not going to read it all for yourself then you really should at least believe me and my consensus” and “you should hold everything to critical questioning and think for yourself.” The latter ends up meaning “except when it comes to questioning me, which I’ll be highly annoyed if you do without first evincing a convincing grasp of the field I’ve spent decades mastering.”

    STS can, alongside “the public”, advocate a process of inquiry, but one that is more open than either “scientists” or vested political interests tend to allude to. One that questions, say, the motivations of scientists and politicians and journalists, but at the same time, uses (as STS does) evidence to make conclusions (or at least hypotheses) about these things. While STS does say all science is (“small p”) political, it also is (often) quite capable of distinguishing social processes and political motivations like “search for fame”; “search for so-called objective truth” and “search for people’s well-being” and “search for technical solutions [in ignorance or disregard of well-bieng”, etc. etc. Rather than saying “all climate scientists are part of the pro-climate change conspiracy in a search for ever-more grants”, people can (like STS might do) explore the degree to which this is true. If it were the case (as I suspect) that climate change scientists are driven by desires that include self-validation but do not necessarily include conformity of conclusions or a simple grant-bias towards “pro-climate change” results (there are complicated biases in that direction perhaps, but I’d suspect they’re weaker than other ones)–well, all this would be far more interesting conversation.

    At base–in my experience, STS concerns itself, still, with evidence and logic to filter “better” explanations from worse ones. Encouraging this process, and supporting the dissemination of the tools to do it, may lead to people disagreeing with STS types favored causes, but if they’re doing so on the basis of honest skilled inquiry, I think we’d all be in a pretty good state.

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