Mercury, Science, Policy: History & STS

The mercury project invites investigation in a series of provocative directions that are informed by the history of science and STS. Below, I outline a couple. The idea of doing interdisciplinary (or adisciplinary) work is compelling. The growing significance of problem-solving in responding to the environmental crisis constitutes a sea-change in how scientific practice conducts its inquiries, observations, and investigations. It also brings together specialists from a variety of different backgrounds, who must shape a common vocabulary around the problem rather than around the jargon of their respective fields. These hybridized knowledge fields are rich ground for historians and science studies scholars.

Another angle, too: In their 2007 book, Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans reiterated their contention that “science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.” This is the enduring tension of the mercury project in general. Since the Commoner book, I’ve been drawn to some older work by Jerome Ravetz, where he introduces the notion of post-normal science, which is a reflection of science occurring in conjunction with social, political, and economic values weighing in on the results. In effect, Ravetz is especially interested in public participation in science and subsequent political decision-making. He sees it as a positive and viable—indeed necessary—direction for contemporary science. Post-normal science reflects the new nature of scientific inputs to policy processes. According to Ravetz, “only through post-normal science can scientific endeavor recover from the loss of morale and commitment that started with the Bomb … and is now rampant under the capture of science by globalization.” Similarly, in a 1992 article in Theory, Culture, & Society, Ulrich Beck also raised another potential boon for scientific uncertainty. “The exposure of scientific uncertainty,” he wrote, “is the liberation of politics, law, and the public sphere from their patronization by technocracy.” Public science has and will continue to foster greater scientific literacy and a more informed public. That was certainly my interpretation of post-normal science in the Commoner book. Commoner was a scientist-activist, who devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to ensuring that the public was informed and had the necessary tools with which to participate in public debate. My interest here is to make less of a judgment on the moral nature of post-normal science, but rather to recognize its mechanisms as a prevalent feature of the scientific landscape after World War II

The rapid development of scientific knowledge about mercury in the environment provokes two rather interesting channels of inquiry, namely how new scientific disciplines and interdisciplines are formed, and how science functions when social needs dictate immediate recommendations from experts. Both these channels are a product of a modern science that is increasingly characterized by heterogeneity, hybridity, complexity, and interdisciplinarity in knowledge creation. Central to my account is the question of how interdisciplinary research shapes stories about nature. Interdisciplines constitute hybridized knowledge fields situated between existing disciplines, and are composed of a variety of different research specialties. As Scott Frickel observes, whereas “disciplines tend to lead to knowledge that deepens understanding of specific phenomena … interdisciplinary knowledge is often guided by a collective interest in problem solving.” Growing environmental knowledge and deeper understanding of the post-World War II ecological crisis provided a fertile breeding ground for many such interdisciplines, because newly discovered environmental problems rarely conformed to traditional scientific disciplines, which, in turn, precipitated the collaboration and communication of experts with disparate backgrounds.  These interdisciplines, therefore, provide intriguing points of communication for telling especially novel stories about stories about nature, to use William Cronon’s phrase. Another important feature of scientific interdisciplines as they emerged to address environmental issues after World War II involved the relative urgency of procuring information.  In a 1985 article on the development of conservation biology, Michael Soulé discussed the precarious nature of what he called “crisis disciplines,” where, he claims, “one must act before knowing all the facts.”  Soulé argues that “crisis disciplines” require more than “just science.”  In fact, they are “a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.” Put another way, Brian Wynne and Sue Mayer assert “Where the environment is at risk, there is no clear-cut boundary between science and policy.”

In my reading, the production of scientific knowledge necessary to understand the problems surrounding mercury pollution takes place in the incipient stages of what Jerome Ravetz has called “post-normal” science, where knowledge “is uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.” From nuclear fallout to global warming, scientific communities have been pressed into action to weigh in—quickly—on the issues of the day.  Let me stress “quickly.”  In advocating a “third wave” of science studies, which examines the boundaries between experts and the public, H. M. Collins and Robert Evans observe that “the speed of political decision-making is faster than the speed of scientific consensus formation.” Indeed, when pressed to regulate mercury in Sweden, the National Institute for Public Health was forced to use data from the Minamata disaster, rather than starting their own tests and experiments to exhaustively determine the highest zero-effect dosage of mercury. Time was of the essence. But this is not how modern science was designed to work. The project of this post-normal science—a derivative of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-based normal science—is not to collect and present definitive knowledge, but rather to function within a highly complex network of policymaking interests, best described by Latour’s notion of “co-production,” which marries the production of knowledge with the production of social order.

And if understanding the nature of mercury pollution posed difficulties, regulating mercury on limited or incomplete scientific knowledge was equally problematic. In Japan, Sweden, Canada, Guatemala, Iraq, the Seychelles, the Faroe Islands, and the United States, government authorities either acted very quickly, erring on the side of caution, or did not act quickly enough, or acted ineffectively. In addition, international bodies like the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission engaged in discussions that transcended national borders. That these political debates gave rise to considerable adjustment of environmental policies pertaining to acceptable limits for mercury exposure further points to an interesting dialogue between the importance of political capital and the social demands of scientific knowledge.

While my investigation of national and international environmental policy treats the complexity of working with a body of knowledge that is incomplete, it also trades on the basic premise of environmental history that nature—in this case mercury—is more than just a backdrop to human history.  What happens to environmental policy history and the history of science when its subject (nature) is not a static canvas, but is continually introducing new and puzzling variants of pollution? Moreover, how do science and international politics reconcile when they, too, are in constant motion and change? As a result, the story of mercury pollution emerges as a legislative subject with fluid characteristics; human understandings of this problem shifted over time and place. And these efforts to manage mercury emissions suggest that nature was an active participant in this history. Mercury’s transition from elemental isolation to unwelcome ecological integration offers an intriguing blend of human and natural agencies. On the one hand the release of methylmercury into the environment is part of a well-documented history of the tragedy of unintended environmental consequences spurred by technology and visions of progress. On the other, it serves as an interesting opportunity to engage with themes of natural agency in heretofore under-examined ways. Mercury has a nature; in its transmutation from benign element to toxic pollutant, nature suggests an agency that palpably organizes how mercury and humanity mix.

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