Beyond skeptical relativism: evaluating the social constructions of expert risk assessments

Van Zwanenberg, Patrick and Millstone, Erik (2000) Beyond skeptical relativism: evaluating the social constructions of expert risk assessments. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 25 (3). pp. 259-282. ISSN 0162-2439

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Abstract

Constructivist analyses of risk regulation are typically agnostic about what should count as robust or reliable knowledge. Indeed, constructivists usually portray competing accounts of risk as if they were always equally contingent or engaged with different and incommensurable issues and problem definitions. This article argues that assumptions about the equal reliability of competing accounts of risk deserve to be, and sometimes can be, examined empirically. A constructivist approach grounded in epistemological realism is outlined and applied empirically to a particular comparative U.S./U.K. case study of pesticide regulation. The article argues that while the scope for interpretative flexibility when addressing risk issues is clearly extensive, it is not unconstrained. By scrutinizing the structure and coherence of particular risk assessments and policy decisions by reference to both empirical evidence and commonly held robust standards of interpretation, the article argues that the U.K. evaluation was not only less precautionary than its U.S. equivalent, but it was also less well constructed and therefore less reliable. Several social and institutional characteristics of U.S. and U.K. policy making are highlighted that appear variously to facilitate or inhibit the production of reliable knowledge and the making of prudent policy decisions.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of Business, Management and Economics > SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit
Depositing User: Patrick VanZwanenberg
Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2012 20:15
Last Modified: 20 Jun 2012 15:16
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/25004
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