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Science and Society

Introduction

The conventional picture views science as the ultimate search for previously unknown

truths about our natural world. There is a notion that good science can lead you to a fact

regardless of the surrounding circumstances. In other words, science doesn’t require context and

can stand-alone because scientific knowledge trumps all other types of knowledge. This leads to

the idea that science is separate from, and superior to, all other things in the world. Additionally,

there is an assumption that science has no strings attached to social influences. This way of

thinking is incorrect because science is a cohesive part of society. Just as with all other parts of

humanity, science is integrated into a dynamic web of social factors and would not exist without

the collective environment in which it was produced. This essay will show how the lay expertise

of the Cambrian sheep farmers and AIDS activists added to the making of scientific knowledge.

It will also show how public engagement through citizen science and open science can allow the

public to contribute to science in a cooperative manner. These two examples will clearly

challenge the conventional view of science being separate from society.

Media and journals are often interested in publishing scientific stories that convey

excitement, while downplaying or completely ignoring the process that occurred to reach the

conclusion. This is dissemination of knowledge is recognized as the “dominant model” of

science popularization (Sismondo, 2010). It says, “Science produces genuine knowledge, but that

knowledge is too complicated to be widely understood” (Sismondo, 2010, p.170). It emphasized

the conventional view of science by implying that scientific knowledge is objective and self-

evident, while assuming the public wouldn’t be able to understand the ‘complex’ details. Prior to

the mid 1990s, this belief system fed into many public understanding of science studies, which
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used the “deficit model” to try and understand why the public couldn’t comprehend what the

scientists’ considered to be basic science (Yearly, 2005).

Similarly to dominant model, the deficit model fails to recognize contextual aspects of

learning (Sismondo, 2010). The study format assumes the scientists are right and any deviation

from the correct answer is considered to be a deficit of public knowledge (Yearly, 2005).

However, the deficit model neglects to appreciate the more nuanced relationship the public has

with scientific knowledge (Sismondo, 2010). With the highly publicized scientific controversies

on the rise (Stilegoe, 2007), the study responses are “ likely to contain many people who are

fully aware of what scientists think; they simply reject it” (Yearly, 2005, p.6). This introduces

the idea that publics have their own knowledge that intersects with science based on social

factors, like environment and experiences. These knowledges, or lay expertise, can either concur

or contend expert ideas (Yearly, 1999). It’s also important to note that not all “publics” have the

same knowledge, which the conventional picture fails to recognize. It’s therefore inaccurate to

say scientists are the only group contributing to scientific knowledge. The public has the

competency to be participants in the creation of new knowledge, which helps to show the social

aspect of science.

Lay Expertise

Cambria Sheep Farmers

This case study introduced by Wynne (1993) is an example of how the public had their

own expertise that could have contribute to scientific knowledge, but instead was largely ignored

by an arrogant scientific team. This shows that science is not self evident, but instead relies on

the environment in which its produced. Immediately following the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986,

local scientists and government officials told the Cambria sheep farmers there would be no
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harmful effects from the cesium on their livestock (Wynne, 1993). However, the cesium wasn’t

decaying as the scientists’ predicted which led the farmers into a costly predicament that would

effect future generations on their farms. They were unable to sell their sheep and risked them all

dying of starvation due to the reassurances made by the scientists that proved to be wrong

(Wynne, 1993).

In addition to the scientists doing poor science, they “ignored farmers’ own knowledge of

their local environments, hill-sheep characteristics” (Wynne, 1993, p.287). The farmers had

expressed valid and useful specialized information that could have contributed to understanding

of the crisis. However, since the farmers’ knowledge was passed down orally and not formally

organized somewhere, “the experts did not recognize the value of the farmers’ own expertise, nor

see the need to integrate it with the science in order to manage the emergency properly”.

(Wynne, 1993, p.295). This shows that knowledge isn’t true because the authority of the

scientists determined what they thought to be true. At the same time, some also claimed

knowledge produced by the scientists had ulterior, political motives (Wynne, 1993), increasing

the lack of trust between the farmers and the experts. Trust is a social component thus

emphasizing the fact that science relies on social factors.

The conventional picture of science portrays knowledge as objective and free of context,

but this is incorrect. Science has social influences that cannot be replicated in an artificial setting.

The farmers’ realized this when they encountered the paradoxical messiness of science. They

saw how easy it was to manipulate the radiations readings and lost faith in the scientists’ agenda

(Yearly, 2005). The farmers’ opposition towards science was the result of insufficient trust

between the public and the scientific community (Sismondo, 2010). This example shows how lay

expertise was a valid contribution to scientific knowledge and challenges the conventional view
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of science as separate from society. Idealized science says context-free knowledge should be

placed above everything else, but this doesn’t work in the public.

AIDS Activism

This case study shows that lay activists can become authentic contributors in the creation

of scientific knowledge. AIDS activists in the 1980s were the start of new social movements

where laypeople demanded say in the way that research was being conducted and knowledge

was being produced. The activists found ways to present themselves as credible resources within

the expert community, effectively “transforming the very definition of what counts as credibility

in scientific research such that their particular assets would prove efficacious”( Epstein, 1995,

p.409). The AIDS acitivist movement went against the popular notion of science as an isolated

community with exclusive entry and challenged the hierarchal barrier between science and

society.

Over time, the activists themselves became experts by working in the field. They effected

change “both in the epistemic practices of biomedical research and in the therapeutic techniques

of medical care” (Epstein, 1995, p.409) by presenting themselves as valuable resources with key

expertise. AIDS activists shifted their role from unrepresented human test subjects to becoming

active contributors in the experimentation process (Epstein, 1995). Activists did this by placing

themselves in the center of AIDS research and treatment; directly effecting change into the

scientific process as research subjects and patient advocates. They pointed out flaws in

methodology of the AZT trials and helped to remove some placebos by pointing out patients had

to die to observe results (Epstein, 1995). The activists proved that “people not certified as experts

repeatedly demonstrated an ability to learn about the intricacies of pressing technical matters

with surprising speed” (Yearly, 2005, p.10), which goes against the conventional picture of
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science. AIDS activism challenged the relationship between expert and laypeople by insisting on

the fundamental right to contribute to the production of medical science (Epstein, 1995) and

gaining patient autonomy. It can be argued that without the societal pressures placed by the

activists on the scientific system, certain knowledges would never have been explored.

Therefore, the conventional picture of science should be revaluated as the notion that science is

the search for fundamental truth is flawed. Science exists due to the social environment in which

it’s produced.

Public Engagement

Citizen Science

Another way the notion of a barrier between science and the public is challenged is

through citizen science. The conventional view presents the science community as an elite group

that excludes the public. However, a layperson can contribute to the making of scientific

knowledge through projects that utilize citizen scientists. A citizen scientist is “a volunteer who

collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (Silvertown, 2009, p.467) This

usually takes the form of public engagement through a wide range of data collection projects

(Irwin, 2015) because it takes advantage of the fact there are billons of dispersed people all with

the capability of adding to science.

Citizen science allows the public to supplement and contribute to scientific processes

(Irwin, 2015). The public is able contribute first hand to the development of new knowledge by

using their expertise and interests for data collecting. For example, EarthEcho International holds

an EarthEcho Water Challenge aimed to gather information on international water quality. One

day a year, volunteers take their test kit and test the water quality in their community and share

the results (EarthEcho International, nd). The project currently has people from over 140
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countries involved and uses the information to create sustainable projects through partnerships

and raise awareness to protect valuable water resources (EarthEcho International, nd). There are

hundreds of projects similar to this that challenges the view that laypersons are unequipped to

handle scientific producers and emphasizes the switch from “science for the people” to “science

by the people”.

Open Science

The emerging practice of open science, where a study’s entire scientific process is made

available to the public free of charge, could make science more accessible to the public and

allow for more public contribution to knowledge. Open science has the potential for several

beneficiaries: “for scientists, open science could offer a novel method to represent them directly

and communicate personally with a variety of audiences; for members of the public, it could

offer a route for direct access to original work” (Grand, 2012, p.680). Open science has the

capacity to help change the relationship between laypersons and experts. A layperson with

expertise would be able to contribute through comments or peer review, therefore increasing

quality assurance and legitimizing results resulting in higher quality knowledge produced

(Yearly, 1999). As shown in the Cambria sheep-farming example, the two-way lack of trust

between the scientists and farmers severely affected knowledge building. It can be argued,

“practicing science in the open, facilitating access to information, processes, and conjecture as

well as to data, results, and conclusions, could sustain trust through increased transparency and

greater completeness” (Grand, 2012, p.684). The public would get to see the messiness,

uncertainty, and social aspects of science that would help removed the conventional view and

facilitate increased collaborative knowledge building.


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Conclusion

Science is fundamentally a social endeavor because scientific knowledge is created for

and within the public domain; it is communal. The Cambrian sheep farmers showed that

members of the public have their own knowledges, but the dominant model of science failed to

recognize contextual aspects of learning and therefore invalidated them. This goes directly

against the conventional picture of science as a context-free truth and showed that knowledge is

not self-evident. AIDS activist demonstrated that laypersons were able to directly contribute to

knowledge building. Finally, citizen science and open science challenged the idea that science is

separate from society. Through these examples, it’s clear the conventional view of science

should be dismantled and replaced with a model that represents science acting in society.
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References

EarthEcho International, nd. EarthEcho Water Challenge. [online]Available at:

http://www.worldwatermonitoringday.org [Accessed 30 November 2017]

Epstein, S., 1995. The construction of lay expertise: AIDS activism and the forging of credibility

in the reform of clinical trials, Science, Technology and Human Values, 20, pp. 408-437.

Grand, A., et al, 2012. Open Science: A New “Trust Technology”? Science Communication,

34(5), pp. 679-689.

Irwin, A., 2015. Public Engagement with Science. IN: J. Wright (ed). International Encyclopedia

of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 11, pp. 255–260.

Silvertown, J., 2009. A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, pp.

467-471.

Sismondo, S., 2010. The Public Understanding of Science. 2nd ed. Chichester; Malden: Wiley-

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