Gross’ ‘Scientific and technical controversy’

This will be a slightly different post from what I’ve done before. In class last week we discussed a paper by Alan G Gross called ‘Scientific and technical controversy: three frameworks for analysis'(1). I’m going to use this post to discuss this paper and the implications it has for the nuclear power debate.

In his paper, Gross compares three different frameworks for analysing scientific controversies as put forward by three different researchers: Gusfield, Turner and Habermas.

Gusfield’s framework analyses controversy in terms of ‘moral order’. In his view, society is structured around moral orders, which are used to help the ruling groups maintain order in society. When people subscribe to a particular moral framework, it enables them to make decisions about complex ideas with relative ease and little rational thought. A controversy arises when these is a mismatch between the moral orders of different groups. The characteristics of this type of controversy is that there is little rational rhetoric employed, rather there is a back and forth of moral indignation.

Turner’s framework is based on how social rituals are designed to keep conflict at bay. His theory is that controversy only arises when a deep conflict breaks through the societal rituals. These controversies are resolved when the overlying social ritual is modified.

Habermas’ framework is a little bit more broad ad separates controversies into different categories: political, ethical, moral, intellectual and scientific. Each of these different types involves slightly different style of engagement and resolution.

The point that Gross is trying to make with this paper is that all of these frameworks hold different levels of truth to them and that they can all be applied to different scenarios and situations.

In the context of the nuclear debate, the Gusfield framework is probably the one that fits best. The science of the safety and benefits of nuclear power have been cleared from the scientific community for a long time. The remaining controversy is deeply entrenched with the morals of the different sides.

On one hand you have the anti-nuclear community who use the moral outrage in the argument that nuclear power is too dangerous to be justifiable. To communicate their point of view, they use pure pathos, such as the video I put in the last post.

On the other hand, the pro-nuclear side uses the argument that it would be immoral not to make use of nuclear power, as a far cleaner form of power that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.

Ironically, both sides also like to say that their opponents don’t care about the world, it’s people, the environment, etc, when in fact they are both for all of these things.

Gross’ analysis of the Gusfield framework also makes a salient point about resolution. He talk about these sort of debates, based on moral outrage, as unresolvable, once these moral standpoints become associated with their proponents identities.

This poses a problem (but also probably explains a lot about) the nuclear debate. The nuclear debate has been going on a long time (more on that in the next post), as shows very little movement in either direction, so maybe to move this debate there need to be a shift to a different frame work such as (as Gross suggested) a social drama, that will allow the controversy to be dealt with from a different angle.

Say something controversial.