Lessons at the sharp end

June 21, 1996

Unfortunately, in his review of our edited book, Misunderstanding Science? (THES, May 31), Lewis Wolpert took the opportunity to repeat his well-known views concerning the social scientific misunderstanding of science.

In so doing, he nicely exemplified our argument that the scientific understanding of its public is at least as important as the public understandings of science. At the same time, he illustrated (albeit inadvertently) the difficulties of establishing an open and critical dialogue between social scientific researchers and those such as Wolpert who claim to speak for the scientific community.

Since Wolpert did not engage with the main points of the book, it may be helpful to draw some of these to readers' attention.

There are major difficulties with the current "public understanding of science" agenda, which generally views legitimate public concerns and criticisms as a problem only in terms of "science communication".

The research in this volume suggests that science needs to learn from, as well as contribute to, current debates, and indeed that its institutional practices may need to be reconsidered accordingly.

Public groups (and, it would appear, social scientists) are often represented as "ignorant" of science, yet the research collected in our book suggests that public groups often possess a rich body of contextually generated knowledge and expertise that is generally dismissed by scientific institutions.

The various ethnographic and qualitative studies in our book do not suggest a polarisation around science or anti-scientific sentiment. Instead, they offer a more complex picture of the "public reconstruction" of scientific and other sources of information within often difficult social situations.

Finally, and in justice to our contributors, the various case studies in our book (which cover a variety of settings and contexts for science-public relations) deserve the serious academic discussion they have received elsewhere. In our opinion, the Economic and Social Research Council is to be congratulated for supporting an innovative and timely research programme.

The research in the book has already been disseminated and discussed with scientists, science policy makers and industrialists as well as within the social scientific community. These people at the sharp end of interactions between science and society recognise the complexities which Wolpert seems to think can be legislated out of existence by his dogmatic and self-satisfied polarisations.

While social science is ready to engage in serious, critical but open-minded debate as to how to sustain the cultural and instrumental benefits of science, Wolpert appears to be undermining the very enterprise he claims to be defending.

Alan Irwin

Reader in sociology

Brunel University

Brian Wynne

Professor of science studies

Lancaster University

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