Genesis of Eden

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Towards a Democratic Science
Richard Harvey Brown ISBN 0300067070 NS 11 Jul 98 50

COME on, be rational, say scientific defenders of genetically engineered food. As they see it, the public is hopelessly ignorant and emotional about such newfangled technologies. Let's face it, the "science boosters" say, public disquiet is nothing more than irrational fear or outdated moralism. Public debates are a waste of time. Let's just get on with the science. Does it have to be this way? Is cutting-edge science inevitably misunderstood by a reactionary public? Or is there a way in which science itself can evolve a new, less elitist, relationship to civic life? In this interesting and optimistic book, Richard Harvey Brown, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, says there is. His motivation is partly personal. Brown is a social theorist; his beloved brother Jason is a scientist. Intellectually, they would appear to be worlds apart. How can they talk to one another about what matters to them? Can they find a common language in which to communicate their intellectual passions? Brown's solution is to see science as a kind of storytelling, to be incorporated into the moral narratives that give meaning to our world and to our lives. He deplores the polarisation that casts science as the acme of amoral rational efficiency, opposed to the irrational moralistic stories of everyday life. Instead, he wants us to construe science as a kind of narration-a story well told and, conversely, to understand storytelling in all its guises as a form of reason. The payoff is that everybody can tell stories. "Science as narration thereby becomes available in principle to ordinary citizens in the rational, ethical construction of their common life," Brown writes. Two bugbears of contemporary life are demolished at a stroke. Moral and political issues can no longer be disguised as mere technical matters, while the quality of public moral debate will benefit from an injection of techno-scientific know-how. He wants us to evolve a "rhetorically reflective civic narration" that would help citizens to see the political issues hidden behind the technical discourse and to see how political debates can be informed by technical knowledge. His goal is "to make technical talk accessible to citizens and storytelling amenable to reason". We cannot know how to eliminate acid rain, for instance, unless we understand that sulphur is a cause of it. "Nor can we know why we should eliminate acid rain unless we have a conception of the character and value of human life," he adds. By finding ways of fusing the how and the why, we can "humanise technicians" and, more importantly, "enlighten and empower citizens". Scientists may bristle at the notion that all they do is spin yarns, but Brown intends no slight to the status of science. His aim is to show that knowledge making is a social accomplishment, achieved by the scientific community incessantly in conversation with itself. Scientists attempt to convince their colleagues of the validity of their findings by talking, lecturing, writing, publishing and e-mailing stories that describe, justify and promote their work. "This rhetorical character of science does not negate its rationality but instead is its primary source," Brown argues. Scientific knowledge emerges as whatever the practitioners of science judge to be the best stories. Nor does Brown want to erode "the autonomy and independence of scientific communities". These must be preserved, he argues, "as a vital part of civic narrations" which sets standards for democratic argumentation as a whole. Problems arise only when scientific experts move beyond the bounds of their special competence in a bid to influence public policy, he argues. He sees such scientific boosterism as having contributed to our contemporary plight, where a narrowly conceived technical rationality is accepted as the objective language of public life, while "ethical reflection is reduced to subjective or purely private realms", argues Brown. "Thus we have amoral scientism in one sphere and irrational moralism in the other, with little confluence of the two in reasoned public moral action." He wants to reclaim the public space from both "scientistic experts and irrational storytellers" and see it "expanded for citizen self-direction". Much of his argument is sociology for sociologists; the stories he tells can be a mite hard going. But the overriding moral of his tale-his quest for an alternative democratic science-is intriguing. The trouble is, wishing doesn't make it so. As Brown knows only too well, governments and industry find it inordinately useful to be able to draw on scientific findings to legitimise controversial political policies or entrepreneurial activities. As a result, these institutions are unlikely to want to confine technical discourse to a more limited sphere of influence. And why should we imagine that scientists themselves will choose to be more self-critical about the political nature and social origins of their research, when the hotter a research project appears, the more likely it is to befunded? Can we hope ever to see "coalitions of scientific groups and democratic social movements"? Brown turns to this central issue in the penultimate chapter. "How," he asks, "can we reclaim public policy from experts and subsume their scientific knowledge within larger narratives of our common life?" Again, his prime suggestion is that we reconceptualise our understanding of science. But Brown also envisages a democratic science supported by grassroots social movements, which would provide "political will and civic intelligence" for the necessary social transformations in science policy and practice. The environmental justice movement has already developed a "community-based scientific method". In his view, "this 'people's science' seeks to empower citizens to use science as a tool in developing healthy and ecologically sustainable communities." His example of such a movement focuses on the activists of Love Canal in New York state in the late 1970s. Lois Gibbs, a local housewife, organised the community living in houses that had been built on a polluted dump into an effective campaigning group that eventually forced government action. The original Love Canal Homeowner's Association led to a national environmental organisation, the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, which now supports 750 local environmental groups across the US. Its book, Experts: A User's Guide, published in 1985, advises local groups to hire experts for the right reasons: "to help us ask the right (technical) questions and to teach us how to be our own experts". Brown seeks a "redefinition of the cultural idea of science-from a technicist practice, accessible only to a specialised priesthood, to a rhetorical practice in which all competent adults can engage". He longs for a world in which science and ethics are fused in prudent judgment by citizens reasoning and deciding together as they create themselves and their civic culture. He acknowledges that all this may seem Utopian today. But the stories we live by could be different, he seems to say, if only we would dare to tell them.

Gail Vines