by Beck Collins
I get very annoyed when people talk about scientific knowledge as though it was just another opinion to be heard down the pub. Scientific knowledge is different. From the stage of fledgling academics working through their PhDs, scientists are trained to be rigorous in their research practice. They must be conversant with the debates in their area, they must follow meticulous procedures while gathering and analysing data, and they must demonstrate where their work contributes to current understanding. They must be able to defend themselves at every turn. In this way scientific knowledge can be ‘trusted’.
I have a lot of respect for this approach. However, knowledge which comes from this rigorous process of inquiry is not the only type. I realised this recently while reading planning journal papers about how local people sometimes reject the ‘rational knowledge’ and resultant solutions that are presented to them by planners. In these cases, people favour their own knowledge of their local areas generated through their everyday experience. How could I reconcile these two understandings of knowledge? Does one have precedence over the other? I went on to think about BCU’s accredited courses; where students gain knowledge through professionally standardised training. Accredited courses have a stamp of approval; the relevant body has said that this is what you need to know; this is how we market our courses to new students after all! Is that the end of it then? What about tacit knowledge which is important to the smooth running of professional life; knowledge that people have that is difficult to articulate and is based on experience (such as tendering skills built up from past experience)? How does that fit in? There’s also Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s understanding of experts’ knowledge; according to Flyvbjerg (2011) their great experience gives them such a holistic understanding that they intuitively know what to do. So I should trust them, they’re experts? That sounds fishy! And are all ‘experts’ quite so worthy of this description?
This is an important issue! Every day we are all bombarded with information from different sources based on these different forms of ‘knowing’. Climate change is an obvious example, with everyone from scientists, business people, and the amateur weatherman down the pub having an opinion. As an academic I have my own small area of expertise: for everything else, I am a layperson. All this information is about seriously important questions; the mitigation of climate change, social justice, the UK budget deficit, the housing crisis and more. These are all problems that need solutions. As citizens we all have a stake in these questions and must bring our understanding to bear when we make decisions at the ballot box. But how do we judge all this competing information? Are some of these different ‘knowledges’ more relevant in given situations? Or is this the wrong question entirely?
I couldn’t work this out alone shut up in my study with the cat, so I got together with colleagues across the faculty to get to the bottom of this through a good debate. Dr Lynsey Melville, an Environmental Engineer and Claudia Carter, a Lecturer in Environmental Governance were good enough to help me in setting up the debate by bringing their nuanced perspectives to bear on the issue. Suffice to say, we didn’t solve the problem, but the debate highlighted a number of issues. I’ll talk about just three of them here: context, power and the role of the media.
Context is important; different types of knowledge are helpful under different circumstances. Drawing on a case study by Brian Wynne (1998), Claudia highlighted the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, when radioactivity was released into the atmosphere, some of which fell on sheep-farming areas in Wales[i]. To protect consumers, restrictions were placed upon the movement of sheep from these areas, where contamination levels in sheep meat is over a certain limit. Government experts thought that this area of sheep grazing was largely clay soils, and radioactive particles would over time bond to clay particles (get adsorbed), and would hence be found less and less in the food chain or water sources. Hence the sheep would only consume radiated grass for a relatively short period and therefore would become less contaminated over time, and restrictions could be lifted. However, the knowledge obtained from geological and soil maps was not accurate enough in specific locations. Many farmers knew that the soil on their farms was not, in fact, clay. They followed the restrictions but, as they predicted, the radioactivity did not get adsorbed. In 2009, 369 farms were still under restrictions (Resnicoff, 2013). Here, it would have been better to seek local knowledge to verify/amend and essentially integrate this with scientific knowledge to then form a better solution for the many sheep farmers affected.
Power is another issue, and plays a role in knowledge creation and dissemination. Scientifically produced knowledge might be manipulated by individuals or public and commercial organisations. How research is funded can determine the sorts of questions that are asked, and the sorts of voices that are heard through the research process. For example, the government is interested in funding research that seeks to understand individual energy behaviour, with a view to helping people to conserve energy. And yet by framing the problem as one of individual behaviour, questions about wider contextual constraints on behaviour are not asked, and the voices wanting to respond to such questions are not heard. The media (of which more in a minute) is also implicated in this issue of power. The media has the power to decide which issues are brought to the public’s attention, and which positions on those issues to present. Often science loses out to ‘public interest’ stories. The only science related issue that breaks through some tabloids’ predilection for scantily-clad pubescence is the eternal question of what causes, or helps prevent, cancer.
The media is a difficult issue in its own right. In theory the media (in all its guises from tabloids and broadsheets to online forums) is an ideal platform for disseminating scientific and non-scientific knowledge and framing these in a socially relevant conversation. The media is after all, aimed at non-specialist audiences, is not overly technical, and is immediate. Sadly though, the media is rarely very helpful in explaining knowledge to the public. It likes punchy sound-bites and catchy headlines, (Chocolate Prevents Cancer!) not nuanced positions (when eaten as part of a healthy diet). A divisive story is much more interesting than the reality that all contributions are partially right, and together build a complicated picture. Some stories, such as the Royal baby, are considered more interesting to the public than others. The media is after all a commercial animal; it must sell copies. Another problem is that the media reflects values in what it publishes; conceptions of what is important in life, and what should be cherished. The media (like many people) will look for information and evidence to support those values, and ignore information to the contrary. Evidence of the benefit to society of legalising drugs will not be published by a paper which holds more conservative values.
I came away from this debate fixated on this problem of the media, and its role in the issues of power and context. Assuming my research is of any quality and worth to society, I feel uncomfortable leaving the media to explain it to others on my behalf. And as in any given context, my academic knowledge may be only one of the types of knowledge that will be useful, I want to put it out there where professionals, policy makers and laypeople can get to it. I want to see what people have to say about it. I want to join these groups in a conversation about society’s problems where we can discuss the best way of framing questions, where we can put our best academic, professional, tacit and experiential knowledge together, and see how we can move forwards.
It starts today! It starts for me with this blog! Comment below!
Flyvbjerg, B. (2011) Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Resnicoff, M. (2013) Chernobyl Radiation Still Contaminating UK Sheep. [Online] Available at http://www.chernobylee.com/blog/2009/09/chernobyl-radiation-still-cont.php [accessed 5 August 2013].
Wynne, B. (1998) ‘May the sheep safely graze? A reflexive view of the expert–lay knowledge divide’. In: Lash, S., Szerszynski, B. and Wynne, B. (eds) Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, Chapter 2. London: Sage.
Beck Collins is a PhD researcher at BSBE interested in practical projects for sustainable energy and behaviour change. She was once described as “a general good egg in the Birmingham Green sector” by a man pushing a bicycle. She hopes to live up to the title.