Citizens and Science: Really?

On Monday, October 21, 2013, Dr. Yves Gingras (UQAM) opened the Science and Society Sympoium 2013 with a talk entitled “The Transformations in the Relations between Science, Policy and Citizens.” Humorous and insightful, Dr. Gingras inspired a great deal of conversation and set the tone for a very productive three days that focused on how to improve the social-science interface. I begin here with an overview of the presentation which is followed by a short commentary.

Dr. Gingras began with a light-speed tour of the relatively recent emergence of what he calls “The New Science Contract.” Though by no means the first major shift in the in the relations between science policy and citizens, contemporary shifts in the landscape mark a return to a type of public science from a type of private science that had come to pass, in part, on account of the rise of instrumentation and sophistication of science that increasingly required specialized knowledge and skills. In many practical ways, these developments largely barred the layperson from participating in the scientific enterprise and established an obvious partition between science and the citizen.

Things are now very different and changing rapidly. With the burgeoning of the digital realm throughout all the nooks and crannies of the social world, not only have the ways in which knowledge is produced and disseminated changed, so too have the relationships between knowledge and knowledge practitioners. With a perpetual vetting of knowledge through public media forums, easy access to a wealth of knowledge repositories online, an increase of public interest in the impact of science (such as in the realm of environmental issues or medical interventions, for examples), “the doctor knows best” is no longer the powerful governing sentiment that it once was.

Dr. Gingras contrasted two models of the relationship between citizens and science. One model, the older more traditional model, entails a fairly linear chain of command, so to speak: citizens elect representatives who then articulate the government’s priorities in science and in turn entrust these priorities to the major funding agencies that then administer the dispersion of funds to specific research and technology development activities.  The newer model is much more web-like in that citizens now have representation not only by elected representatives but also by lobbyists and special interest groups. Citizens now have more direct access to the major funding bodies and elected officials can and do now intervene directly in research activities. Dr. Gingras presented a number of specific cases to demonstrate each of these relational developments. Fueled by better and more rapid access to knowledge, a more educated population, an ease in the organization and operations of special interest groups, and a competitive industry that transacts in science and knowledge claims, among other things, one might say that science has reached the end of normal and has been transposed into a post-normal realm.

An erosion of trust in research and truth claims is a central issue in the new scientific ethos. Who do we trust? What claims are reliable? As Dr. Gingras explained, it often does not take much digging under surface, particularly the highly publicized claims, to discover the beneficiaries. One finds that a fair number of good scientific initiatives and developments attract big industry and are harnessed to (and perhaps driven by) the industry’s economic objectives. The blogosphere is rife with campaigns for and against everything from vaccinations to caffeine, and these campaigns entail the embedding of arguments in the perceived power of scientific authority.  Who knows who or what to believe.

Okay, I think I understand the problem, and I am in no position to make a case for or against either of models, to echo Dr. Gingras.  Each, I am sure, have their advantages and drawbacks. A quick look around attests to the rapid evolution of science and technology which suggests that the older model has been working to some degree at least. One question I have, however, is whether or not the older model as articulated by Dr. Gingras represents how the relationship between science and citizens really worked or represents the conception or perhaps perception of how it worked.

This makes a difference because if it is a model of how the science actually worked (or works), then the term “citizens” functions as a rather unified homogeneous unit which washes over the distribution of power and influence at play within such a collective. In other words, if this is how science actually worked, then “citizens” renders the vision of a unit in which all members are equal with equivalent power and influence. Everyone gets one vote. In reality, political stratification is and has been a reality.

Indeed, the traditional model might well be understood as highly receptive to special interest groups in a way similar to that of the contemporary model, except that the number of groups are far fewer and unmarked. The special interest group(s) are those situated in the dominant realms of the “citizen” collective and can wield the power and influence that their position affords to access the processes of science at points conducive to their own agenda and objectives.

While there may indeed be special interest groups in the traditional model that are consciously organized and understood in the same way as they are understood in the contemporary model of science, I am more interested in pointing out the rather un(officially)organized and likely even unconscious interest groups that seem to have shaped the science-citizen relationship in significant ways. For example, feminist theorists have pointed to the ways in which science has long embodied androcentric values and norms. One result of this was (is), as Carla Fehr discussed in a separate talk at this symposium, a lengthy history of sharp misrepresentations of gender and sex, systemic mis-observations and disinterest in relevant and significant information. As Fehr explained, it’s not necessarily that scientists and knowledge practitioners were (are) necessarily ‘bad’ at what they did or that they had disingenuous intentions. More significantly, the science entailed the values and norms of the social context in which they developed. As a result, the interests of those citizens whose interests correspond with androcentric norms and values are taken up in the scientific process, at all points of possible entry. Though unnamed and unmarked as a special interest group in the way in which they are currently understood, and perhaps not even really fitting within the framework of this term at all, there seems to be a degree of commensurability in that one group of citizens among others had more (perhaps tacit but at least concentrated) access, influence, and impact on the scientific enterprise. Similar arguments could be made if one looked from the perspective of class, race, sexual orientation, and so on.

There is much worry about the erosion of trust inherent in the new network science model. But I wonder if the discomfort is really about a lack of reliability (or perceived lack) of science and scientific claims or about the transfer of power/influence from a concentration in dominant social factions to a dispersed and sprawling web of diverse people with diverse interests.

I don’t think, however, that a more democratic type of science in itself (whatever ‘democratic” might actually mean other than some basic notion of distributed political power), can offer any advantages in regards to challenging biases in science. It may appear that a system in which the many rather than the few have influence on the knowledge economy and participation in the scientific enterprise is better equipped to ensure that a diversity of interests are represented, but if cultural norms and values are not attended to and still entail serious social inequalities then they will continue to infuse the same biases—en masse rather than from concentrate. What I mean is that so long as our cultural norms and values embrace, endorse, sustain and reproduce dominant ideals to the benefit of some and detriment of others (in unethical proportions) such power discrepancies, such as those articulated in the feminist critiques of science, may indeed be more democratic but may not be any less hierarchical or bias and value laden.

Indeed, it seems to me that there is a risk that the democratization of science may entrench the biases even more. It’s one thing to petition a central governing body to reconsider the implicit values and assumptions of the conceptual framework in which the relationship between citizens and science is situated, but it’s quite another to motivate collective reflexivity and undertake a mass persuasion project.

I do not have anything close to a good solution, and in fact, I am not even sure if I have sufficiently articulated problem. I do think, however, that at the very least there are a number or worthy questions.

2 thoughts on “Citizens and Science: Really?

  1. Really estimulating lecture, thank you! But this part sounds to me quite pessimistic: “I don’t think, however, that a more democratic type of science (whatever ‘democratic” might actually mean other than some basic notion of distributed political power), can offer any advantages in regards to challenging biases in science.”


    1. Yeah, I think you’re right. It is too pessimistic–I added “on its own” which I think is more the point I was trying to make.

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