So often people believe that the solution to their problem lies in science and technical information. How often have you heard some company spokesperson speak to the need for sound science. At CHEJ, we have not found this to be the case. We have learned many lessons about science and how it is used. Science and technical information is important and has a role in helping to achieve your community goals. Identifying this role and learning how to use scientific and technical information is critical to the success of your group.
The most important lesson is that science and technical information alone will not solve your problem(s). It’s reasonable to think that if you hire the best scientists and engineers and make solid technical arguments, the government will do the right thing. Those of you who have been there know it doesn’t work that way.
When the government discovers a problem, it’s reluctant to determine the full extent of the problem. This is because if the government documents contamination that threatens people’s health, it then has to do something about it—like evacuate people or clean up the contamination. This costs money that government doesn’t have or want to spend. Such action might also set a precedent by establishing cleanup standards or unsafe exposures levels that would mean spending more money at other sites
Deciding what action to take is complicated by the fact that there are few answers to the many scientific questions raised by exposures to toxic chemicals. Scientists actually know little about the adverse health effects that result from exposure to combinations of chemicals at low levels. As a result, when politicians and bureaucrats look for answers, the scientists don’t have them. They have their opinions but no clear answers.
Most scientists however, are reluctant to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Instead they introduce the concept of “risk” and begin a debate over what’s “acceptable.” This process hides the fact that scientists don’t know what happens to people who are exposed to low levels of a mixture of toxic chemicals. This uncertainty gets lost in the search for what’s “acceptable.”
Because of the lack of scientific clarity, bureaucrats and politicians use science cloaked in uncertainty, not facts, to justify their decisions which at best are based scientific opinion, but more likely driven by the political and economic pressures they face. Whether this is right or not is not a scientific question but an ethical and moral question. It is foolish to think that in this setting, science can be anything but a tool used by politicians and corporations to get what they want.
While science and scientific information have failed to provide clear answers and solutions to the hard questions about the health and environmental impact of the chemicals we use, we cannot abandon science. Science and scientific information can be a powerful tool for community groups, but only if you recognize what it can tell you and what it can’t, and only if you learn how to use the information and not just collect it. The right information used in the right way at the right time can be very powerful. Learning how to use scientific and technical information strategically is an organizing skill. Contact CHEJ to continue this conversation.
By Leila Waid. It’s hard to believe that it has already been one year since the Norfolk Southern train derailed in the small and quiet