Why Is It Important to Understand the Role of Science in Environmental Controversy?

Topics: Scientific method, Science, Pseudoscience Pages: 6 (1816 words) Published: October 31, 2008
Why is it important to understand the role of science in environmental controversy?

Understanding the role in which science plays in an environmental controversy is a crucial element for a comprehensive analysis. The use of scientific knowledge is often represented as a fundamental principle within environmental controversies. The centralized view of science relates to many factors. Firstly, the assumptions of science as an authority lend it to be a privileged type of knowledge. Secondly, as the status of science is portrayed as privileged, various groups or players within the controversy utilize this resource as a power of authority over other knowledge. The struggles over knowledge claims still reside in environmental controversies. However, science is still suggested as the ‘best lousy advisor’ to evaluate or give insight into the depths of a controversy. Lastly, the roles of science within industrial developments are closely observed. This reveals issues on moral and ethics, which challenge political and economic desires of scientific development.

Science is privileged

The role in which science plays within an environmental controversy is an important aspect of understanding disputes that underline the conflict. These disputes often feature science as the centre of scientific or social debates. Barry (1999) suggests, scientific evidence may be used as a potential solution or a possible insight into a controversy. With science playing such a large role within environmental controversies it seems evident to understand the views and perceptions of science. Commonly, the orthodox view of science is regarded as a homogeneous establishment; value free (Irwin 1995, p.47). Thus, science is presented with a role of authority in knowledge. Nelkin (1995, p.452) also observes that science and scientists are judged to be free from any political or social intervention, providing objective scientific findings. As a result of these assumptions the status of scientific knowledge within environmental controversy lend science to be privileged.

In the case of Wynne’s (1989) Chernobyl accident and Beder’s (1991) sewage dumping in Sydney’s beaches, it is apparent how the role of science has been made an authority, dominating over other knowledge, in particular lay knowledge. Regarding Beder’s (1991) interpretation of the issues involved, sewage authorities brought forward the conclusion that there were ‘no evidence’ to suggest potential health risks by extending the outfalls of sewage dumping without secondary treatment. These conclusions of scientific studies, science was made as an authoritative voice, were continually negotiated and manipulated to construct a ‘sound argument’, supporting their interests and agendas. In the case of Wynne’s (1989) Chernobyl account, the communication between the scientist and sheep farmers resulted in unprecedented confusion. Science was applied as an authority of knowledge, in this account the formalities of science did not recognise the informal practices of the sheep farmers. In other words, the scientists completely ignored the lay knowledge of local farming methods and experience. In the end, it had serious affects on the sheep farmers economically. On these occasions, the status of scientific knowledge revels the power struggles over the use of science as a dominant form in negotiation between interested parties. This illustrates how science still prevails over other knowledge because of the institutions behind it, in these case studies the government.

Nonetheless, despite scientific knowledge valued as objective, its application is however still subject to political or social interests (Irwin 1995). Science has presented practical significants to the progressive world, however, it is impossible to distinguish science from social or political agendas. With that said, the public perception has too changed its views. Nelkin (1995) argues that, in light of the advancements that science...
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