Environmental sociology: Environmental justice and communicating science

Society has perceptions of scientists; white lab coats, sitting in their labs, conducting research separate from the public realm. Yet, there is a human dimension to science. Despite all the data and...

Society has perceptions of scientists; white lab coats, sitting in their labs, conducting research separate from the public realm. Yet, there is a human dimension to science.

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Society has perceptions of scientists; white lab coats, sitting in their labs, conducting research separate from the public realm. Yet, there is a human dimension to science. Despite all the data and the density of information that scientists work with they also involve themselves deeply in dealing with human issues.

I interviewed ESF Professor Mary Collins about her research into environmental justice issues involving super-polluters. A super-polluter is a company or industry that contributes a significant amount of pollution to an area relative to the size of the population. In many environmental justice movements, these super-polluters are often situated in poor areas that are populated mostly by people of color or impoverished persons.

Professor Collins is an environmental sociologist. She looks at both the human dimensions to the issue as well as the data and science to try and determine who is contributing to the pollution in each area. She also uses statistical analysis to determine what are the prime causes of pollution in an area and who is responsible.

The watershed moment in her life that motivated her to research the causes that were the root of environmental justice issues. She went to Florida into a poor, predominately African-American community that was near a toxic waste incinerator.

She heard that the community experienced “snow days” in which ash from the incinerator would come down into the community. The residents were powerless to stop the toxic ash from falling into their community.

A resident told her: “I don’t understand why they won’t shovel the ash into the Everglades.” These poor residents were the victims of pollution and had a legitimate grievance against these companies.

This experience in a poor community raises a much larger question: If we call ourselves environmentalists, what is our priority when it comes to the environment? In environmental justice, it is often poor marginalized groups that bear the brunt of the harmful effects involving toxic waste. Yet, they cannot bring their grievances to the legal system because they are not fully capable of understanding the science and data that are presented to them as well as lacking access to scientific information. In many landmark cases, such as Love Canal it is often people who have greater access to resources that have the greatest chance of getting things done.

Who creates most of the pollution? Certainly, people do but comparatively who is generating more; industry or the public? These are the questions that Professor Collins looked to answer in her research. Utilizing data sets and statistics she found that there was a trend that very few industrial facilities generate most of the environmental risks.

What she discovered is that the facilities that generated much of the environmental issues. There are small groups of “bad actors” that choose not to comply with environmental regulations and site many of their waste facilities near marginalized communities. Often there are poor minority communities which lack the resources to fight large corporate interests. When we look at cases such as Love Canal the reason they received a wider public and media attention is because there is an inherent privilege associated with participation.

Lois Gibbs was a white mother, which means that her cause and activism will receive more attention from the outside world. Typically, in poorer communities the focus is on survival and making ends meet. Organizing and activism take time and when individuals are in a constant state of struggle it is next to impossible to organize and take any strong political action. Access to information is also critical. There is a perception in society that scientists act independently of the public. That they are cold and distant from the public arena.

Collins feels that environmental justice is divided into two camps. The individual and the societal. She feels that there is a structural solution towards addressing environmental issues rather than just strictly data collection and dissemination of facts. The political and educational structures in place do not foster easy communication between scientists and the public. Simply knowing something doesn’t mean people are likely to change. Everyone comes in with their own knowledge and expertise and it is important we get them involved in these issues rather than sitting in front of a camera and lecturing. It is important that the scientific literature be accessible to the public.

Collins mentions an organization called the USC PERE (Program for Environmental and Regional Equality) which translates scientific information to make it accessible to poor communities. They work to coordinate environmental justice activism by building activist networks. PERE’s work is vital in bridging the gap between scientists and the public because they help to build grassroots movements.

The solution that Professor Collins proposes involves changing the fundamental structures that perpetuate the gap between the public and scientists. The media is often the most direct method of communicating science to the public. Newspapers, social media and television are direct outlets that scientists can use to share their information.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for the media to create fear based false narratives that perpetuate misinformation. In her experience, Professor Collins believes strongly that changes in political institutions is necessary to dispel the misinformation in science and break the stranglehold of confirmation bias in the media there needs to be a way for scientists to directly engage the public. Ease of access through the Internet allows information to be shared easily. Unfortunately, this ease of access creates what is known as confirmation bias in which people seek out information that reaffirms their beliefs. The best possible solution is to these issues is to engage scientists with the public. We need to take care of our environment and the research that scientists conduct should have meaning.

There needs to be a more proactive action oriented approach to science rather than a passive lecture methodology. Scientists are not trained to engage with the public. They are trained to analyze data and conduct research. Intermediaries like policy writers and communicators are needed to help translate available scientific information for the public. We need to support changes to the current systems and scientists I think, should be more proactive and engaged with dispelling misinformation. The work Professor Collins is doing is pivotal towards bridging the gap between science and the public. We need to take a more interdisciplinary approach to science in order to see positive change.

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