Sheep farmers and science literacy

Bryan Wynne’s landmark paper on British sheep famers dealing with Chernobyl’s fallout suggested a more nuanced understanding of science literacy that impacts how scientists communicate:

Abstract scientific knowledge may seem universal, but in the real world, it is always integrated with supplementary assumptions that render it culture-bound and parochial. The validity of this supplementary knowledge crucially affects the overall credibility of “science” or “experts.” Furthermore, the mode of communication itself conveys a set of tacit cultural and social assumptions or prescriptions. Efforts to communicate that ignore this fuller social dimension are likely to be ineffectual or even counterproductive.

Harry Collins et al. elaborate in The Golem:

A good example of the scientists overlooking the expertise of the farmers was evident during one episode of experimentation on a farm. Scientists were looking for ways of getting rid of the radioactive caesium by absorbing it in other minerals. Differing concentrations of one possible mineral, bentonite, were spread on the ground in fenced-in plots. Sheep which had grazed on the plots were then tested for contamination and the results compared with a control group of sheep allowed to graze on the fells. The farmers criticized the experiment by pointing out that usually sheep grazed over open tracts of fell land and that if they were fenced in they would ‘waste’ (go out of condition). Such criticisms were ignored. Later, however, the farmers were vindicated when the experiments were abandoned for exactly the reasons the famers had given.

Similarly, in the early days of the crisis, the scientists overlooked farmers’ local knowledge of the lie of the land and their observations of where water accumulated and thus where radiation hot-spots were likely to form. The scientists seemed blind to the farmers’ own expertise of the natural world where they lived and worked.

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