Publics' reactions to science: challenges to facticity and grappling with uncertainty

Document Type

Conference Paper

Publication Details

Hampton, G. R. (2013). Publics' reactions to science: challenges to facticity and grappling with uncertainty. 8th International Conference in Interpretive Policy Analysis Vienna, Austria:


I examine the ways in which publics attribute facticity to scientific and technological expertise within a trial public participation process. We encouraged publics to challenge the apparent facticity of expert judgments and grapple with the uncertainties that were apparent in the science and technology of water reuse. Participants took part in deliberative workshops on this topic, conducted on the east coast of Australia. The workshops were set up as trial for developing a participation process on domestic water reuse. Participants met in small groups and discussed concerns they had about reusing wastewater and questions about the technology involved. They then met again two weeks later to discuss any questions they had in the previous meeting about the process and the technology. They were encouraged to discuss the uncertainties involved in the utilisation of the technology and to question the science involved. Participant dialogue was examined for the way in which scientific and technological knowledge about water reuse was treated with apparent facticity or was subject to challenge. Jonathon Potter's concepts of reificatory discourse and defensive rhetoric were utilised for characterising acceptance of facticity. Reificatory discourse was indicated by the use of category entitlement in that the category of expert was regarded as one that could be trusted and reliance upon an empiricist discourse through reference to testing and published reports. Defensive rhetoric was indicated by participants' suggestion that if information had been made public then it had some form of external recognition. Potter's concepts of ironising discourse and offensive rhetoric were used to characterise participants' challenges to claims of facticity. This use of such discourse and rhetoric was evident in participants' use of humour and disbelief in official assurances about the purity of recycled water. An alternative to the acceptance of facticity is to encourage publics to question expert knowledge and to assist them to manage possible ensuing uncertainty. Strategies which could achieve this include: - surveying a range of differing expert and scientific views in order to alert participants to the diversity often existent in such views thus suggesting the inevitability of the uncertainty of such views; - enhancing public understanding of the limitations of scientific methodology and technological knowledge which may enhance understanding of uncertainty in expert-scientific views but increase the perception of such uncertainty; - uncovering and utilising local knowledge to assess whether scientific and technological judgments are applicable to local situations; - promoting a stance of critical reflection which illuminates and uncovers the cognitive and epistemological stance of experts and participants so that people understand the constraints of expert and local knowledge; - explanations of the use of the precautionary principle in policy development and planning.



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