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Gene Technology and Social Acceptance
  1. T Wilkie

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    W P Von Wartburg, J Liew. University Press of America Inc, 1999, US$41.50, pp 338. ISBN 076181325X

    Over the past 15 years, since the publication of Walter Bodmer's report for the Royal Society, the public understanding of science (PUS) has become a positive industry in the UK. Initially intended by the natural scientists to foster public acceptance of science, it has gradually drawn on a longer and deeper academic tradition in Britain of the social studies of science. Some of that social science research predicted the recent “moral panic” over genetically modified (GM) crops and food, but both natural scientists and governments have held social science in low esteem for many years, so it went unremarked at the time.

    The hypothesis of those who launched PUS was that the public was merely deficient in factual knowledge and that public acceptance of science could be improved simply by setting out “the facts”. Social studies of science had demonstrated the vacuity of this “deficit model”, both theoretically and empirically, long before the GM furore provided an experimental falsification of the hypothesis that was clear to all. With the publication of a seminal House of Lords report on science and society in 2000, a more socially informed way of thinking is now entering the British mainstream.

    This book offers a view from a rather different perspective: it is neither British nor a work of social scientists, but comes from the head of corporate communications for Novartis (who also acts as professor of health policy at a Swiss graduate school) and from the communications manager of a major German chemical company. As one might expect from a continental European perspective, there is a lively awareness of social factors in the acceptance of new technology, but sadly the conceptual framework within which these authors work appears dated and unrealistic.

    It is an abuse of language (and of the conceptual clarity that should underlie the use of language) to divide, as these authors do, public reaction to GM technology into “rational” and “emotional” categories. Although the authors try to limit the damage by noting that the emotional factors are not “any less valid, less legitimate, or less important”, it follows immediately that the “emotional” factors are irrational. Nor does it help that their subheadings under “rational factors” include: medical benefits; economic benefits; environmental benefits; and social benefits [my emphasis]; whereas the “emotional factors” include: concern about safety and aversion to risk. This is not classification but rhetoric.

    In premodern (peasant) societies, almost all risks are natural disasters, Acts of God, such as crop failure; famine; flooding; pestilence, and devastating weather. In contrast, in a modern society risks almost all result from social choices of technology–whether: to build a nuclear power plant or to burn coal; to slaughter a nation's cattle herds or hope that BSE will not transmit to humans, to plant GM crops. Although we accept socially imposed technological risks—indeed it would be impossible to function in modern society if we did not—that acceptance is provisional and will turn to rejection if anything goes wrong. The character of risk changes from premodern to modern society: one does not sue God for a natural disaster, but we believe it justifiable to sue if a train crashes, or an aeroplane falls from the sky.

    Socially imposed technological risks are a central, defining element of life in modern society, not a secondary “emotional” factor. Strangely, although the fundamental text that sets out this thesis on risk—The Risk Society—was originally published in German by a German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, it appears not to be cited in this book. (It has been elaborated in the UK by Anthony Giddens, now director of the London School of Economics, but he appears not to be cited either.)

    Despite its flaws, there is a great deal in this book. It attempts a “big picture” overview, and much of its factual and historical content is interesting and valuable. The authors provide a clear exposition of the technical aspects of biotechnology itself and do appreciate many of the social and ethical issues that it raises. It seems to represent a genuine attempt to reach out from the laager of technological supremacists to the wider community to seek consultation and consensus. As such it is to be welcomed, for no purpose is to be served by repeating, with genetic modification, the mistakes of nuclear power. But for all that, this book also shows just how far there is for the scientific-industrial community still to go before it fully appreciates the rational foundations for the public to assert its voice, its values, and its expertise, as well as, and against, the well-articulated voice, values, and expertise of the biotechnology companies.