Scientific Controversy

By Martha Crawford,2014-06-17 15:30
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Scientific Controversy ...

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    “Studying Scientific Controversy from the STS Perspective”

    Trevor Pinch and Christine Leuenberger, Department of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University,

    There is a long history now of studying different sorts of controversies within S&TS.

     In this concluding comment we plan to talk about some of the main approaches and try and relate them a little to the papers presented at this conference both the papers

    on the session on “Citizen Participation and Science and Technology” and the papers on the Hwang controversy.

    First off we note that in general the quality of the papers at this meeting has been very high and they auger very well for the new venture in S&TS publishing which you are embarking upon. As one of us said already the Hwang controversy is the “Perfect Case Study” and being located here in Asia you are in the perfect place to bring the S&TS analysis of this controversy to the attention of the wider S&TS community.

    In handling our comments today I (Trevor) will start by making some general comments about the S&TS approach towards controversy and then Christine will say a bit more about the specific papers and how they fit into this approach.

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    The importance of scientific controversy has been recognized by scholarship within Science and Technology Studies (S&TS) since the 1970s. Indeed the study of controversies has become an important methodological tool to gain insight into key processes which are not normally visible within the sciences.

Longstanding disputes, hotspots and scientific revolutions

    What makes something a scientific controversy? It is important to distinguish longstanding disputes, such as that between science and religion, or the merits of socio-biological explanation as applied to humans, or whether the fundamental constituents of matter are particles or waves, from more localized disputes such as over the existence of a new particle or a new disease transmitting entity. The latter sorts of controversy are more like a "hot spot" which erupts for a while on the surface of science than a deeply entrenched long-running battle. Also controversies are not be confused with the bigger sea changes which science sometimes undergoes during scientific revolutions. Although defining a scientific revolution is itself contested,

    the all-pervasive nature of the changes in physics brought about by quantum mechanics and relativity seems different from, for example, the controversy over the detection of large fluxes of gravitational radiation or over the warped zipper model of DNA. Similarly long-running debates on the relative impacts of nature and

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    nurture on human behavior have a different character from more episodic controversies, such as the possibility of interspecies transfer of prion disease. Of course, intractable disputes and revolutions share some of the features associated with controversies, but it is the bounded nature of controversies which has led to their becoming an object of study in their own right, especially within the tradition of S&TS associated with the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).

The Methodological Importance of Controversies

    One metaphor for understanding why controversies have taken on such methodological importance is that of "punching" a system. Scientists on occasion gain insight into natural systems by punching, or destabilizing, them. For example, one may learn more about the laws of momentum by bouncing one billiard ball off another than by watching a stationary billiard ball. Similarly Rutherford famously used scattering experiments in which gold foil was bombarded with alpha particles to uncover the structure of the atom and in particular the presence of the nucleus. The methodological assumption underpinning the study of controversies is similar. By studying a scientific controversy one learns something about the underlying dynamics of science and technology and their relations with wider society. For instance, during a controversy the normally hidden social dimensions of science may become more explicit. Sites of contestation are places to facilitate the investigation

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    of, for instance, the metaphors, assumptions and political struggles embedded within science and technology.

Four Different Approaches to Controversy

    We can note four different influential approaches towards the study of scientific controversies.

    (1) The school of sociological research associated with Robert Merton (1957) first recognized the importance of controversies within science. Of particular interest to Merton was the existence of priority disputes. Many well-known controversies center on who is the first scientist to make a particular scientific discovery. (2) A second approach toward the study of scientific controversy developed in the 1960s as concerned citizens increasingly protested what they took to be the negative effects of science and technology. Here the source of controversy is the perceived negative impact of science and technology on particular groups and it is the study of these political responses which forms the core of the analysis.

    (3)The new sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) which emerged in the 1970s and which largely displaced the Mertonian school provides a third approach towards the study of controversies. Here the focus is on controversies at the research frontiers of science where typically some experimental or theoretical claim is disputed within an expert community.

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    (4) Modern science and technology studies owes a heavy debt to SSK but is less likely to make distinctions between the content of science and its impact. Within this fourth approach, controversies are seen as integral to many features of scientific and technological practice and dissemination. Their study forms a key area of the discipline today.

Merton and Priority Disputes

    Merton's interest in priority disputes stemmed from his claim that science has a particular normative structure or "institutional ethos" with an accompanying set of rewards and sanctions. Because so much of the reward structure of science is built upon the recognition of new discoveries, scientists are particularly concerned to establish the priority of their findings. Such priority disputes are legion, such as the famous fight between Newton and Leibnitz over who first discovered the calculus, or the more recent unseemly dispute between Ian Wilmut and his colleagues as to who is the real “father” of Dolly the cloned sheep.

    It was Thomas Kuhn (1962) who first raised a fundamental problem for the analysis of priority disputes. A priority dispute is predicated upon a model of science, later known as the "point model" of scientific discovery, which can establish unambiguously who discovered what and when. Asking the question who

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    discovered oxygen, Kuhn showed that the crucial issue is what counts as oxygen. If it is the dephlogisticated air first analyzed by Priestly then the discovery goes to him, but if it is oxygen as understood within the modern meaning of atomic weights then the discovery must be granted to Lavoisier's later identification. The "point model" requires discovery to be instantaneous, and for discoveries to be recognized and dated. A rival "attributional model" of discovery, first developed by Augustin Brannigan (1981), draws attention to the social processes by which scientific discoveries are recognized and "attributed". This approach seems to make better sense of the fact that what counts as a discovery can vary over time. In short, it questions the Eureka moment of the point model. For example, Woolgar (1976), in his analysis of the pulsar’s discovery, shows that the date of the discovery varies

    depending on what stage in the process is taken to be the defining point of the discovery. If the discovery is the first appearance of "scruff" on Jocelyn Bell's chart recording of signals from the radio telescope, then it will be dated earlier than when it was realized that the unambiguous source of this "scruff" was a star. This case was particularly controversial because it was alleged by the dissonant Cambridge radio astronomer Fred Hoyle that the Nobel prize winners for this discovery should have included Jocelyn Bell, who was then a graduate student. Priority disputes can touch in this way on the social fabric of science, such as its gender relationships and hierarchical structure.

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    Despite the challenge posed by the attributional model, it is the point model of discovery which is embedded in the reward system of science. As a result priority disputes still abound. In modern technoscience, discovery can mean, not only recognition, but also considerable financial reward, as for example with patents, licensing arrangements or stock in a biotech company. In such circumstances, priority disputes have added salience. One has only to think of the battle between Robert Gallo and the Pasteur Institute over priority in the discovery that HIV is the cause of AIDS. In this case there was not only scientific priority at stake, but also the licensing of the lucrative blood test for identifying AIDS. The controversy could only be settled by intervention at the highest political level. The Presidents of America and France, Ronald Reagan and Jacques Chirac, agreed to share the proceeds from the discovery. Again what was at stake scientifically was not simply who was first past the post; the protagonists initially claimed to have isolated different retroviruses and disagreed over the effectiveness of the various blood tests. This case was marked by additional controversy because of allegations of scientific misconduct raised against Gallo which led to Congressional and NIH investigations.

Controversy over the impact of science and technology

    That a priority dispute could require the intervention of national political leaders is

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    an indication of just how important science and technology can become for the wider polity. In response to the AIDS crisis, activist groups have campaigned and pressured scientists and government officials to do more scientifically and have intervened in matters of research design, such as the best way to run clinically controlled trials. Such activist engagement dates back to the political protests which science and technology generated in the 1960s in the context of Vietnam-era issues such as war and environmentalism. There has been increasing recognition that science and technology are neither neutral nor necessarily beneficial and that many developments stemming from modern science and technology, such as nuclear power, petrochemical industries, and genetic engineering, raise profound and controversial issues for a concerned citizenry.

    Dorothy Nelkin, a pioneer in analyzing these types of disputes identified four types of political, economic and ethical controversies which engage the public in the US (Nelkin 1995). One set revolves around the social, moral and religious impact of science. Issues such as the teaching of evolution in US schools, animal rights, and the use of fetal tissue such as stem cells fall into this first category. A second type of controversy concerns a clash between the commercial and economic values surrounding science and technology and that of the environmental movement. Ozone depletion, toxic waste dumps, and green house gases are pertinent examples.

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    A third set has been provoked by health hazards arising from the transformation of food and agricultural practices by the use of modern science and technology. Genetically modified foods, the carcinogenic risks posed by food additives and the use of bovine growth hormones in the dairy industry all belong in this category. A fourth group centers on conflicts between individual rights and group rights - a conflict that has been heightened by new developments in science and technology. For example, the mass fluoridation of water to improve dental health denies individuals the right to choose for themselves whether they want fluoride in their water supply. This latter sort of controversy is further fanned when controversies enter the legal arena. As Sheila Jasanoff has argued in her study of the silicon gel breast implant controversy, the mass tort cases that follow are settled by individual litigants being replaced by statistical objects and the power of juries losing out to court appointed experts in the relevant science and technology.

    Research on these sorts of controversies by Nelkin and her colleagues focused mainly on the interest politics of the groups involved. How and why do they get involved in political action over science and technology; what underlying political values do such groups exhibit; and how do they effectively intervene to protest some perceived deleterious development stemming from science, technology or medicine? The positions taken by the participants are consistent with their interests, although

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    these interests may not enable the final outcome or closure of a debate to be predicted. For instance, the demise of nuclear power had as much to do with economics as with political protest. Since scientists themselves often play an active part in these disputes, a full analysis will touch upon how scientists deploy their science for political aims. But, by and large this research tradition has avoided using the entry of scientists into these disputes to examine the core processes by which scientific knowledge is developed and certified. In short, the attention was focused upon seeing how scientists became political rather than upon how politics might itself

    shape scientific knowledge. Political controversies were treated as analytically

    separable from epistemic controversies and as resolved by distinct processes of closure (Engelhardt and Caplan 1987). Typically epistemic controversies were thought to be closed by application of epistemic and methodological standards, while political controversies were closed through the intervention of "non-scientific factors", such as economic and political interests.

    Even when the micro details of how people make technical decisions in participant decision-making processes are examined it is important to analyze how the technical aspects of knowledge are dealt with. The different contours of expertise of different lay groups would seem to be important. Thus the paper by Juraku, Suzuki and Sakura on decision making around Japanese nuclear power needed integrating more

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