Enter advisers, stage left, with facts

December 15, 2000

Analysing science advice as a form of drama offers insight into its reception, says Stephen Hilgartner.

The BSE tragedy demonstrates that the health of individuals and of public institutions depends on an unobtrusive army of science advisers. Panels of experts evaluate the safety of the foods we eat, the drugs we take, and the cars we drive. They estimate the scope of global warming, investigate industrial accidents and assess genetic engineering. They advise governments on nearly every area of policy.

Yet even if science advice enjoys enormous influence, it no longer commands automatic respect. Public trust in experts has waned since the 1960s, and such episodes as the BSE affair have further eroded confidence in their advice. People increasingly recognise that in many policy domains, scientific knowledge is uncertain, incomplete or contested.

More broadly, scientists and laypersons alike increasingly acknowledge that few contemporary issues fit into the tidy dichotomy of facts versus values. To ask, for example, whether genetically modified foods are safe raises many additional questions. How strong is the evidence of risk? According to whom? Do scientists agree about this issue, and if not, which ones should be believed? The question "what are the facts?" is entangled in questions about the criteria for determining facts, which are connected to questions about who can be believed, what scientific methods are reliable and how much evidence is needed to justify change.

Against this backdrop, a number of questions arise about the social processes that surround the production and evaluation of science advice. How do advisory bodies assert, cultivate and guard their credibility? How do they respond to critics who challenge their objectivity, expertise or integrity?

My book, Science on Stage , addresses these questions by analysing expert advice as a form of drama, examining how it is prepared, performed and critiqued. From this perspective, advisory bodies are performers who strategically manage what they present to their audiences, crafting public performances while hiding other activities "backstage". The book compares three United States National Academy of Sciences reports on diet and health - one that was very influential, one that was largely discredited and one that was cancelled before publication.

The analysis shows that stage-management techniques - that is, means of controlling what is displayed publicly and what is concealed - play a central role in shaping the credibility of science advice. The academy's reports are prepared by expert committees, and they typically present univocal narratives of scientific agreement. Confidentiality procedures allow the academy to conceal details about backstage deliberations that might undermine the appearance of unity or allow outsiders to fashion alternative accounts.

Although the academy hides the backstage from its audiences, it finds it unavoidable - even advantageous - to publish official descriptions of the kinds of activities that go on there. These descriptions present the backstage as an objective space, populated by disinterested characters, regulated by impersonal procedures and free of vested interests.

The academy's stage-management techniques not only help it to manage its audiences but also to control its committees. Academy reports forge a collective voice out of the many individual voices of committee members, whose speech is regulated according to organisationally imposed spatial, temporal and social boundaries.

Like all social systems, the academy's stage-management techniques function imperfectly. Critics often try to upstage its advice, which they attack in many ways - for example, by highlighting uncertainty, staging disagreements among experts and charging bias. At times, academy insiders aid these critics, "leaking" backstage information that they use to support their allegations. These struggles between advisers and critics, stagecraft - and efforts to disrupt it - play a central role in shaping the reception of science advice.

Efforts to reform science advisory systems cannot neglect stage management. In recent discussions of science advice, champions of transparency have sometimes romanticised openness, without adequately considering the merits of confidential processes or fully recognising the inevitability of information control. (Allowing outsiders to observe meetings, for example, may lead performers to displace sensitive activities further "backstage".) For their part, defenders of confidentiality at times seem to suggest that closed discussions offer the only conceivable means to produce reliable, independent advice.

My argument suggests that such formulations - which rest on a binary distinction between open and closed processes - miss the range of possible institutional designs and obscure an understanding of their consequences. Barriers that regulate access to information cannot be eliminated. They can, however, be altered in ways that redistribute control over the stage, changing the tactics that audiences use to acquire information and performers use to manage it.

The fundamental choice is not between the transparent or the opaque, but between different systems of stage management - systems that shape in complex ways the roles of experts and audiences, their powers of speech and observation, and their abilities to control the display of science on the public stage.

Stephen Hilgartner is assistant professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University, New York. His book, Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama , was published by Stanford University Press in September.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments