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Science vs Society:
Conflict Between the Power and the People

Ever since the discovery of fire, and of cutting tools, it has been clear that virtually any scientific knowledge can be used for good or for ill: the costs and benefits depend entirely on how it is used."[F1]

scientist.jpg (11706 bytes)Science, and scientists, have been viewed throughout history as something noble and pure. Society has been led to believe that anything that scientists do will eventually benefit society. In recent years, however, that view has changed. Although some members of society still hold the traditional view of science, and of scientists, others see that science can be "good" or "evil," and still others believe that science will only lead to the destruction of nature, with no benefits whatsoever. There is no arguing the fact that science has benefitted society: medical techniques have saved many lives; the internet has increased the availability of information to members of society; research into weather patterns has allowed society to be forewarned of storms, such as tornadoes; and the study of astronomy has given society insight into the formation of Earth and of the solar system. However, science has also had negative effects on society. The cars that make travel easier for society also pollute the air; medicines that are prescribed are sometimes later found to have side effects; and nuclear technology has been used to create bombs, killing and injuring people, and has been used for an energy source, releasing radiation which causes medical problems. When it comes to the negative effects of science, members of society often feel powerless. An example is nuclear technology. Nuclear power is controlled by and promoted by scientists and the government. Nuclear power plants are built, almost literally, in someone's back yard. The people feel powerless to do anything about it; after all, the government is a powerful force. According to the government, the nuclear power plant will benefit society, despite medical problems suffered by the nearby residents. Thus, the relationship between science, controlled by the government, and society is a hostile one. Society is told that the science and technology will benefit them, but they have a different perspective. What they see is the control of their lives by the powerful. It is difficult for scientists and government officials to agree with other members of society because they have differing views on what is beneficial and what is not. Because scientists often work closely with, and are often controlled by, the government, they do not consult the public. It is this political hierarchy that widens the gap between science and society.

There is a close relationship between scientists and the government. This is because most scientists work in government laboratories and/or receive federal funding. In the United States of America, ". . . the federal government invests over twice as much money in [federal] laboratories as it does in university research, and the largest laboratories are among the nation's largest employers of scientists and engineers."[F2] The organizations and committees which control science are also usually government bodies, including the Atomic Energy Commission, which was formed by the American government to control nuclear power. In any occupation, the employee must "go along with" their employer if they wish to keep their job. They must not have conflicting views with the organization they work with. This includes scientists working for the government. They must conform to the rules and policies of the organization, or they will risk their job security. An example is Glen Greenwald, a chemist in the Public Utilities Department of the City of North Miami Beach, Florida. On August 23, 1977, a resident noticed that his tap water tasted, smelled, and looked unusual. Glen Greenwald was contacted. Tests were performed on the water, revealing the presence of coliform bacteria. Not wishing to take any chances, Glen Greenwald had the water distribution system in the area flushed. He later suggested to the family that they not drink their water, although the Public Utilities Department had given the impression that the water was now safe. When his boss found out about the suggestion, Glen Greenwald was discharged for insubordination. The Public Utilities Department did not want to alarm the public, when there may have been nothing to worry about. Because Glen Greenwald had differing opinions than the organization he worked for, and he took action in the public interest, he lost his job. He wanted to ensure the public safety, but to his superiors, public safety meant not alarming them without cause. According to Frank Von Hippel, "[scientific] advisors contemplating going public in order to challenge an emerging executive policy that they consider inimical to the public interest must weigh two great uncertainties: the effectiveness of such a move versus their future effectiveness as insiders."[F3] He also tells his own story:

. . . a personal experience in 1972. At the time, I was working at one of the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) national laboratories and [an acquaintance] and I had just published our first article on "The Politics of Technology" in the 25th anniversary issue of the Journal of Applied Spectroscopy. In that article, we discussed a number of cases in which science-advisory panels had been used to legitimize policies that they had warned against. Unfortunately for me, two of the cases we cited concerned the AEC, and someone drew that fact to the attention of a high-level AEC official whose division provided the lab with half its funding. That official expressed his displeasure, and I was asked by the lab management to stop writing such articles. I doubt that I would have been fired for failing to comply with this request but I never found out because, shortly thereafter, I left to take up the fellowship at the NAS . . . although the Bill of Rights guarantees U.S. citizens freedom of speech, it does not guarantee that they will keep their jobs if they exercise this right.[F4]

Although a scientist may not always lose his or her job for speaking in the public interest, he or she will still feel pressure from the organization to "keep their mouth shut." Society may be given false information, and although the scientists are aware of this, they remain silent.

In Canada, government officials rely on scientists to provide scientific and technological data and advice, since very few of the ministers have scientific or technological backgrounds. Thus, there is room for the biases and opinions of various people to be incorporated into the information that the government receives:

Blurring is all the more likely when one recognizes that advisory and decision processes are affected by the limited time available to assemble all the facts and data, by the personal relationships between senior technical advisers and their ministerial and deputy ministerial superiors, and by the need to communicate such advice both verbally and in writing. These characteristics combine to withhold facts, especially unpalatable ones, to postpone their delivery for a few strategic days or weeks, to flood a decision maker with too much data, and to create several 'middle men' who channel and interpret both facts and values within the organization as well as between the organization and its clientele, e.g., other departments, central agencies, and interest groups.[F5]

Thus, even if information is not intentionally distorted by the 'middle men,' there is much room for confusions and misinterpretations. By the time a piece of information reaches the government official, it may have changed from its original form. The government official may not be totally aware of what the facts really are, and then they also add their own biases, opinions, and interpretations to the 'facts.' Government officials have the power to suit the scientists' facts to their own purposes. They can choose to reveal only the positive facts to the public, or they can twist the facts out of context. An example is the case of Malathion, a pesticide. When scientists reported that the pesticide did not seem to have any effect on adults, and that the effects on infants, children, and pregnant women were uncertain, the government told the public that "Malathion may be safe for adults, and there is no evidence to show toxic effects on infants, children, and pregnant women."[F6] Although this statement is not technically a lie, it is distorting the facts. To the uninformed public, it seems as if the pesticide is perfectly safe, when in fact the effects are unknown. Lives may be at stake, but the government misleads the public.

ddtcan.jpg (13448 bytes)Besides being able to manipulate the facts, the government has the power to manipulate the actual studies. In 1966, a report was made to the government by an independent laboratory under contract to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the United States. The report said that 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxacetic acid, a weed and brush killer, caused birth defects. The report was sent back for "further study," which took another three and a half years. Meanwhile, "enormous quantities" of the chemical were used to defoliate one eighth of the area of South Vietnam. If the government had not sent the report back for further study, the effects of the chemical would have been known earlier.

Often, government and independent studies will have conflicting conclusions. When this happens, one has to wonder at the motives of the researchers. An example is aspartame, a sweetener used in many products instead of sugar. Therese Khalsa is one person who consumed large quantities of this product. She was on a diet, so she consumed diet soft drinks and other aspartame-sweetened products. She soon suffered from "attacks," including feeling dizziness, anxiety, and nausea. When a friend mentioned feeling dizzy after consuming aspartame, Therese Khalsa suspected that was what was affecting her health. According to Chellis Glendinning, in her book When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress:

At this point, scientific studies on the benefits or dangers of aspartame contradict one another - with those made by independent medical researchers revealing health dangers for humans and animals, and those by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the sweetener's manufacturer, Monsanto Chemical Company, refuting health dangers.[F7]

The independent researchers are presumably unbiased. On the other hand, the Monsanto Chemical Company has its own business to protect. If their products were found unsafe, they would lose the economic benefits of selling them. The FDA's motives are unclear. Government organizations should theoretically be unbiased, but one has to wonder when they side with a company, and have differing views to independent researchers.

One area of science where there is a great amount of government control is in nuclear technology. After the technology had been developed, the government recognized the need to have control over the technology, since it was extremely dangerous. The Atomic Energy Commission was created, which " . . . was responsible for controlling and disseminating both 'basic scientific information' and 'related technical information,' [and] for supervising the licensing of patents for atomic energy devices . . ."[F8] The AEC promoted nuclear power, believing that it would solve the problem of depleting energy sources, such as fossil fuels. They believed that science would continue to progress, so that any nuclear waste would eventually be able to be disposed of properly in the future. However, others were concerned about leaving today's problems for future generations to deal with. Mrs. Carl, Research Director of the Lloyd Harbor Study Group and an intervener in nuclear power plant licensing cases, was concerned about the political effect of nuclear technology on society:

[she] was not concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors per se. Rather, she was afraid that a new kind of society might evolve to cope with the hazards of the plutonium fuel cycle, a society in which fundamental individual freedoms would be drastically curtailed in favor of a science fiction-like police state. The implication drawn by Mrs. Carl, of course, was that society would have to be operated in near tyrannical fashion, since no wars, uprisings, insurgence, or terrorism could be permitted.[F9]

Not only could nuclear technology pose a threat to the health of society, it could also pose a threat to the democracy that North Americans live in. In order to have nuclear energy, society would have their quality of life degraded, and would be controlled by a "big brother" government. Of course, society would not make this choice: it would be chosen for them by the government, "in society's best interest."

bomb.jpg (11116 bytes)One cannot forget, of course, the immediate health effects of nuclear technology. June Casey was a sophomore at Whitman College in Washington State in 1949. It was near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. They intentionally released radioactive iodine, not informing the people nearby. Soon, June Casey's hair fell out, and she experienced hypothyroidism. It was not until thirty-seven years later that she found out that she had been exposed to radiation at the time that her symptoms first occurred. She, and many others, had been used as "guinea pigs" by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Another member of society affected by radiation was Andy Hawkinson. He was in the U.S. Army. Shortly after the war, he was stationed on an island "paradise" in the South Pacific. Years later, he developed medical problems. Then, he found out that nuclear bombs had been exploded near the island before and after he was stationed there. He had been exposed to radiation without knowing it, while the government knew about it. These two people, and many others, have been exposed to radiation. They had no control over their situations, since they were unaware of the dangers, and yet the government could have prevented their exposure. These people had no influence over the science and technology that was directly affecting their lives.

Although the government had allowed public participation in the process of licensing nuclear power plants, the public input was generally ignored. According to Harold P. Green, "The AEC has regarded public participation in the licensing process as a means of procuring public acceptance of its safety determinations."[F10] Even when members of society make court cases against nuclear power organizations, they are often the non-experts pitted against the experts, who know all of the technical terms, and who are supposed to know what they are talking about. If nuclear power is regarded to be safe by the government, it is difficult for society to dispute that fact. The people are powerless against such an awesome force as the government, working hand in hand with science.

Because science has so many political connections, society is rarely consulted on scientific issues. Government and society often have differing views on what is in the people's best interest. The government has the power to distort the truth, and to keep information confidential. They have control over the members of society. Even if society protests the introduction of a new kind of science or technology, it is often in vain. Many scientists work with the government, and although they may not always intentionally mislead the public, the government often misleads the public for them. In the battle of science vs society, it is science that usually wins, being fought for by the government. It is the government that has power over the people.

[F1] Bernard D. Davis, Storm Over Biology: Essays on Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy (New York, 1986), p. 31.
[F2] Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era (Washington, 1993), p. 39.
[F3] Frank Von Hippel, Citizen Scientist (United States of America, 1991), p. 35.
[F4] Ibid., p. xiv-xv.
[F5] G. Bruce Doern, The Peripheral Nature of Scientific and Technological Controversy in Federal Policy Formation (Canada, 1981), p. 41.
[F6] Chellis Glendinning, When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress (New York, 1990), p. 112.
[F7] Ibid., p. 34.
[F8] Steven L. Del Sesto, Science, Politics, and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974 (Colorado, 1979), p. 23.
[F9] Ibid., p. 194.
[F10] Ibid., p. 116.


Budworth, D. W. Public Science - Private View. Bristol: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1981.

Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals For a New Era. Washington: National Academy Press, 1993.

Davis, Bernard D. Storm Over Biology: Essays on Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy. New York: Prometheus Books, 1986.

Del Sesto, Steven L. Science, Politics, and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974. Colorado: Westview Press, 1979.

Doern, G. Bruce. The Peripheral Nature of Scientific and Technological Controversy in Federal Policy Formation. Canada: Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1981.

Glendinning, Chellis. When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

MacKenzie, Donald and Judy Wajcman (ed.). The Social Shaping of Technology. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985.

New Illustrated Webster's Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Pamco Publishing Company, Inc., 1992.

Savan, Beth. Science Under Siege: The Myth of Objectivity in Scientific Research. Canada: D. W. Friesen and Sons Limited, 1988.

Von Hippel, Frank. Citizen Scientist. United States of America: The American Institute of Physics, 1991.


Spring 1996



Related books for sale on

Public Science, Private View by D. W. Budworth
Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era
Storm Over Biology: Essays on Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy by Bernard D. Davis
Science, Politics, and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974 by Steven L. Del Sesto
The Peripheral Nature of Scientific and Technological Controversy in Federal Policy Formation by G. Bruce Doern
When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress by Chellis Glendinning
The Social Shaping of Technology by Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman
Science Under Siege: The Myth of Objectivity in Scientific Research by Beth Savan
Citizen Scientist: Collected Essays of Frank Von Hippel


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Suzanne P. Currie 1999