The Unifying Aspects of Cultures


Socially Acceptable Sciences

Jerry Ravetz (London)
The characteristic contradiction of the knowledge-based economy

Why has the social acceptability of science suddenly come on to the political agenda? It is related to the recognised crisis of public trust in corporate and official science. What are the roots of that?

We speak of the characteristic contradiction of the science-based economy. On the one hand, it depends on continuous, accelerating innovation. While promising great benefits in comfort and convenience, its products are now realised to compromise safety at all levels. The opposition to innovation, justified by the Precautionary Principle, invokes our ignorance of the 'unintended consequences' that bring new dangers. And sophisticated consumers, becoming critical citizens, exercise their market power to frustrate the intentions of globalised corporations.

The characteristic contradiction is that science-based corporate innovation, vital for the economy, is threatened by science-based consumers' resistance in the name of precaution and safety.

There are now two sorts of science in conflict. There is globalised, reductionist techno-science where danger is denied and ignorance ignored. Opposed to this is 'safety science', fostering the awareness that 'what you don't know that you don't know' is the thing to worry about. The great policy debates are conducted largely at the methodological level, on the proper management of uncertainty, ignorance, and value-commitments.

The methodological core of this new sort of inquiry is post-normal science. This applies when, typically, facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent. There is a need for an 'extended peer community' to assure the quality of both the process and the product. such policy dialogues, the scientists learn that they are also stakeholders. Instead of delivering truth by demonstrations, they are providing information to assist the negotiations in good faith.

Under such circumstances, science could again become 'socially acceptable'.