Scientific Controversies Research Paper

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Science in general can be an object of controversy such as in disputes between science and religion. Particular scientific findings can also generate controversies either within or outside science. 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 that are not normally visible within the sciences.

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What makes something a scientific controversy? It is important to distinguish longstanding disputes, such as that between science and religion, or the merits of sociobiological 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’ that 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 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).

One metaphor for understanding why controversies have taken on such methodological importance is that of ‘punching’ a system. On occasions scientists 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 of the metaphors, assumptions, and political struggles embedded within science and technology.

We can note four different influential approaches towards the study of scientific controversies. 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. 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 that forms the core of the analysis. The new 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. Modern S&TS owe a heavy debt to SSK but are 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.

1. 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.

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 of who 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.

Despite the challenge posed by the attributional model, it is the point model of discovery that 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 unseemly 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 the USA 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 that led to Congressional and National Institute of Health (NIH) investigations.

2. Controversy Over The Impact Of Science And Technology

That a priority dispute could require the intervention of national political leaders is 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. They have also 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 that 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 that 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 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 greenhouse gases are pertinent examples. 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.

Research on these sorts of controversies has 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 these interests may not enable the 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.

3. Scientific Controversy And The Sociology Of Scientific Knowledge

With the emergence of the SSK in the late 1970s, it was no longer possible to avoid examining how scientific knowledge was shaped and how this shaping contributed to the dynamics of controversies. A key tenet of this new sociology of science, as formulated by David Bloor (1991) in his ‘Strong Programme,’ was that of symmetry. This principle called upon sociologists to use the same explanatory resources to explain both successful and unsuccessful knowledge claims. It raised to methodological status the necessity of examining the processes by which science distinguishes the wheat of truth from the chaff of error. SSK soon turned its attention towards examining scientific controversies because it is during such controversies that this symmetry principle can be applied to good effect. With each side alleging that it has ‘truth’ on its side, and disparaging the theoretical and experimental efforts of the other, a symmetrical analysis can explain both sides of the controversy using the same sorts of sociological resources. This differs from the earlier interest approach to controversies in that it applies this symmetrical sociological analysis to the very scientific claims made by the participants.

Bloor and his colleagues of the Edinburgh school pursued their program mainly through theoretical analysis supported by historical case studies. H. M. Collins and the ‘Bath School’ by contrast, developed an empirical method for studying the SSK in contemporaneous cases: a method based primarily upon the study of scientific controversies. One early application of the method was to the study of parapsychology (Collins and Pinch 1982). Collins and Pinch suggested that controversies such as that provoked by parapsychology were resolved by boundary crossing between two different forums of scientific debate: the constitutive and the contingent. Generalizing from several case studies of controversies, Collins (1981) argued that during controversies scientific findings exhibited ‘interpretative flexibility,’ with the facts at stake being debated and interpreted in radically different ways by the parties in the controversy.

This interpretative flexibility did not last forever: by following a controversy over time, researchers could delineate the process of ‘closure’ by which controversy vanished and consensus emerged. Collins defined the group of scientists involved in a controversy as the ‘core set.’ Only a very limited set of scientists actively partook in controversies; the rest of the scientific community depended upon the core set for their expert judgment as to what to believe. This was particularly well illustrated by Martin Rudwick (1985) in his study of the great Devonian Controversy in the history of geology.

As researchers followed controversies from their inception to the point of closure, it became necessary to address matters of scientific method as they were faced in practice by the participants. Factors that had usually been seen as issues of method or epistemology thus became open to sociological investigation: for example, the replication of experiments, the role of crucial experiments, proofs, calibration, statistics, and theory. In addition, other factors such as reputation, rhetoric, and funding were shown to play a role in the dynamics of controversies.

An important finding of this research was what Collins (1992) called the ‘experimenter’s regress.’ Controversies clearly were messy things and were very rarely resolved by experiments alone. Collins argued that in more routine science experiments were definitive because there was an agreed-upon outcome which scientists could use as a way of judging which scientists were the competent practitioners. If one could get one’s experiment to work, one had the requisite skills and competence; if one failed, one lacked the skills and competence. The trouble was that when there was a dispute at the research frontiers there was no agreed upon outcome by which to judge the competent practitioners. Experiments had to be built to investigate a claimed new phenomenon, but failure to find the new phenomenon might mean either there was no new phenomenon to be found or that the experimenter failing to find it was incompetent. This regress was only broken as a practical matter by the operation of a combination of factors such as rhetoric, funding, and prior theoretical dispositions.

Often the losing side in a scientific controversy continues to fight for its position long after the majority consensus has turned against it. Those who continue will meet increasing disapprobation from their colleagues and may be forced to leave science altogether. ‘Life after death’ goes on at the margins and often finally passes away only when the protagonists themselves die or retire (Simon 1999). The uncertain side of science is clearest during moments of controversy. Most scientists never experience controversies directly, and often it is only after exposure to a controversy that scientists become aware of the social side of science, start reading in science studies, and even employ ideas drawn from science studies to understand what has happened to them.

This work on scientific controversy has been exemplified by a number of case studies of modern science such as memory transfer, solar neutrinos, gravity waves, high-energy physics, and famously cold fusion. Historians have also taken up the approach used by sociologists and the sociological methods have been extended to a number of historical case studies. Such studies pose particular methodological challenges because often the losing viewpoint has vanished from history. Shapin and Schaffer’s (1985) study of the dispute between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle’s air pump experiments was a landmark in research on scientific controversy, because it showed in a compelling way how the wider political climate, in this case that of Restoration Britain, could shape the outcome of a controversy. It showed how that climate could help institutionalize a new way of fact-making experiments in the Royal Society at the same time. In addition, it drew attention to the literary and technological dimensions of building factual assent in science. By documenting the witnesses to particular experimental performances, a culture of ‘virtual witnessing’ was born.

The SSK approach to scientific controversy has also been influential in the study of technology. The social construction of technology (SCOT) framework uses concepts imported from the study of scientific controversy such as ‘interpretative flexibility’ and ‘closure.’ A variety of competing meanings are found in technological artifacts and scholars study how ‘closure mechanisms’ such as advertising produce a stable meaning of a technology (Pinch and Bijker 1987, Bijker 1995).

Another influential approach to the study of controversies in sciences and technology has been that developed by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon. Again, the initial impetus came from studies of scientists. Callon’s (1986) article on a controversy over a new method of harvesting scallops is one of the first articulations of what later became known as Actor Network Theory (ANT). Callon argues that the outcome of a controversy cannot be explained by reference to the social realm alone, but the analyst must also take account of the actions of non-human actors, such as scallops, which play a part in shaping the outcome. Subsequently Latour’s work on how ‘trials of strength’ are settled in science and technology has become especially influential within the new SSK. Such struggles, according to Latour (1987), involve aligning material and cognitive resources with social ones into so-called ‘immutable mobiles’ or black boxes, objects which remained fixed when transported along scientific networks and which contain embedded within them sets of social, cognitive, and material relationships.

Latour and Woolgar (1979) in their now classic study of a molecular biology laboratory showed that literary inscriptions play a special role in science. They indicated how controversies could be analyzed in terms of whether certain modalities are added to or subtracted from scientific statements making them more or less fact-like. The role of discourse in scientific controversies has been examined in great depth in a study of the oxidative phosphorylation controversy by Gilbert and Mulkay (1984). They showed how particular repertoires of discourse, such as the ‘empiricist repertoire’ and the ‘contingent repertoire,’ are used selectively by scientists in order to bolster their own claims or undermine those of their opponents. Subsequently there has been much work on how a variety of rhetorical and textual resources operate during controversies (e.g., Myers 1990). Sometimes the resolution of controversy is only possible by drawing boundaries around the relevant experts who can play a role in the controversy. Sometimes particular scientific objects cross such boundaries and form a nexus around which a controversy can be resolved. Such ‘boundary work’ (Gieryn 1983) and ‘boundary objects’ (Star and Griesemer 1989) form an important analytical resource for understanding how controversies end.

In addition to analyzing scientific controversies, SSK has itself become a site of controversy. Most notably, lively controversies have occurred over the viability of interest explanations, over the extent to which the sociology of science should itself be reflexive about its methods and practices, and over the role of non-human actors. The ‘science war’ involving debates between natural scientists and people in science studies over the methods and assumptions of science studies and cultural studies of science is another area of controversy that is ripe for sociological investigation.

4. Scientific Controversy In Science And Technology Studies Today

In contemporary S&TS, the sites of contestation chosen for analysis have become more heterogeneous. One strength of the new discipline of S&TS is the wide terrain of activities involving science and technology that it examines. For example, similar methods can be used to examine controversies involving science and technology in the courtroom, the media, quasi-governmental policy organizations, and citizens’ action groups. Indeed, many of the most contentious political issues facing governments and citizens today involve science and technology: issues such as genetically modified foods, gene therapy, and in vitro fertilization.

The study of controversies in modern technoscience—with its porous boundaries between science, technology, politics, the media, and the citizenry—also calls for the analyst to broaden the array of analytical tools employed. Although the fundamental insights produced by SSK remain influential, such insights are supplemented by an increased understanding of how macro-political structures such as the state and the legal system enable and constrain the outcome of scientific controversies. Examples of this sort of work include:

Jasanoff’s (1990) investigations of how technical controversies are dealt with by US agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),

Lynch and Jasanoff’s (1998) work on science in legal settings such as the use of DNA evidence in court- rooms, and

Epstein’s (1996) work on the AIDS controversy.

In the latter case Epstein deals not only with the dispute about the science of AIDS causation, but also turns to social movements research to understand how AIDS activists outside of science got sufficient influence actually to affect the design of clinical trials by which new AIDS drugs are tested.

Particularly interesting methodological issues have been raised by the study of controversies that overtly impinge upon politics. When studying controversies within science SSK researchers were largely able to adopt the neutral stance embodied in the symmetry principle of the Strong Programme. However, some scholars have argued that, when dealing with cases where analysis could have a direct impact upon society, it is much harder to maintain neutrality. Researchers studying these sorts of disputes, such as whether Vitamin C is an effective cancer cure, find they can become ‘captured’ by the people they are studying. This complicates the possibility of producing the sort of neutral analysis sought after in SSK. A number of solutions have been proposed to this dilemma (see Ashmore and Richards 1996).

Several authors have attempted to produce typologies of scientific controversies (Engelhardt and Caplan 1987, Dascal 1998). Unfortunately, such typologies are not as useful as they could be because they are confounded by their underlying epistemological assumptions. For example, within an SSK approach it makes little sense to work with a category of, say, ‘sound argument,’ for closing a controversy because in SSK ‘sound argument’ is seen as part of the controversy. What counts as a ‘sound argument’ can be contested by both sides. Martin and Richards in their (1995) review adopt a fourfold typology. This review is particularly useful because it distinguishes between the different types of epistemological assumptions underlying the different analytical frameworks employed: namely, positivist, group politics, SSK, and social structural.

Traditional history and the philosophy of science according to one account (Dascal 1998) are becoming more cognizant of the phenomenon of scientific controversy. But the call to examine scientific controversy by historians and philosophers makes strange reading to scholars immersed in S&TS. It is as if the historians and philosophers of controversy simply have ignored or failed to read the relevant literatures. Thus neither Nelkin’s (1992) influential volume, Controversies nor a special edition of Social Studies of Science edited by H. M. Collins (1981), Knowledge and Controversy, which sets out the SSK approach towards scientific controversy, are referenced. That the best way to study scientific controversy is still controversial within the academy could scarcely be more obvious.


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