The controversial side of technoscience

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We are all quite familiar with public discussions regarding energy sources, biotechnology and climate change, with Immagine1discussions on the development of new fields of research and innovation such as nanotechnology, with disputes about installing new mobile phone antennas, large-scale infrastructures or waste disposal plants.

These debates make clear the growing public attention towards the work of scientists and impacts of scientific research and technological innovation on the daily life, and at the same time they expose the experts to forms of public visibility and control by the external members of the scientific community that were previously unknown.

As a result of these changes, technoscience is today at the center of discussions involving not only experts, but also the worlds of politics, media and citizens. Thus emerges the ‘controversial side of techno-science’, which is characterized by the spread of irrational arguments, controversy and contradictions.

Technoscientific controversies now populate the pages of newspapers and Web 2.0 almost every day; they make clear the centrality of science and technology in contemporary society, but at the same time generate questions and doubts capable of disorienting both experts and the public.

They are particularly intense, participated and in some cases heated and confrontational discussions. Technoscientific controversies arise when science and technology become publicly relevant and experts find that their work is discussed and debated outside of the scientific community through languages, codes and representations that appear different and distant from their usual ways of interacting.

Take for example the controversy over climate change. Here we find not only frequent disputes about the causes of global warming, on the most appropriate measures to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions pollutants, but also discussions on future projections of sea levels risings, as well as the phenomenon of deforestation and its impacts on climate, in which the opinions of the experts are commented, criticized or refused, both by their fellow scientists, as by journalists, activists and citizens. The importance of scientific advice of climate scientists is also tested in the political sphere, where it becomes a matter for discussion between the scientific community and policy makers, as evidenced by the activity of public institutions such as the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which compares on a global level politicians and experts coming from around the world. In some cases proper fights develop, as happened at the UN climate summit held in Copenhagen in December 2009, when the Danish police decided to arrest many environmental activists engaged in protests against climate policies. The Copenhagen summit which then housed a comparison of the official representatives of the industrialized countries and those in developing countries, concerning the economic and geopolitical consequences of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions agreed at international level.

The heterogeneity of interpretations and evaluations that the products of scientific research and technological innovations get publicly by the different actors in the course of controversies is an element able to catalyze the potential for discussion and then to make clear all the challenges posed by what is been defined as the process of ‘democratization of expertise’.

This expression is intended to indicate and recognize the predominant role played by science and technology in contemporary society for the regulation of common life, not just referring to impact of discoveries and innovations on society, but also in reference to the processes of communication, regulation and information involving science and expert community, policy making, the media and citizens, to a plurality of levels.

This book explores these phenomena using the interpretive lens of Social Studies on Science and Technology (STS) and shows why the techno-scientific controversies are precious opportunities to rethink the relationship between science and society.

In the volume theories relating to the communication of science and technology, the relationship between science and policy-making and public participation are reviewed and interpreted in relation to the emergence of techno-scientific controversies.

Protests, balmes of scientific fraud, disorientation caused by the presence of scientific advice in disagreement, scientific heresy are all aspects of disputes that it is appropriate to study and monitor closely. The picture that emerges from the study is that of a scientific public sphere certainly exciting and eventful but at times frightening and dangerous: the public fears and phobias generated by the spread of uncertainty and pluralism of technoscientific facts become a new challenge for the achievement of a mature knowledge society, able to adequately enhance the indispensable products of research and innovation and at the same time to prevent the development of conflicts and misunderstandings on the societal side, involving in an organic way all the different protagonists. A challenge that is not always successful, especially when lack of interest or a priori criticism prevail  during these phenomena.

For this reason, the study of technoscientific controversies becomes increasingly necessary and relevant. Understanding the dynamics of public debates on controversial objects helps us not to react with fear, disorientation or rejection of this problematic side of the relationship between science and society, but to also plan adequate communication initiatives and involvement, being thus aware of the different positions of the actors involved, the potential sources of conflict and misunderstanding, and of the diversity of attitudes of the public and non-experts.

Phenomena such as the spread of Web 2.0, capable of changing the features of global communication, services and economy are quite clear in this regard: we live in a world that is not only more and more techno-scientific but it is itself organized and based on the exchange data and information allowed by a technoscientific infrastructures.

In this context, technoscientific controversies appear as ‘blacks swans’ in the relationship between science and society: relatively rare events difficult to predict, but very visible and based on many communicative phenomena, which force us to question our logic of action, our prejudices and change rather quickly our consolidated behaviours and beliefs on the science-society relationship.

The volume aims at providing an active contribution in order to deal with these strong novelty, through adequate theoretical and technological ‘equipment’, capable of bringing together and not divert the participants to controversies, including ourselves.

 

Andrea Lorenzet (PhD), sociologist of technoscience and expert of technoscientific communication, is post-doc researcher at the Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Education, and Applied Psychology (FISPPA) of the University of Padova. He collaborates since 2003 to research activities at Observa Science and Society.