7.3 Multiple interpretations in science
Talking of media reports of the Chernobyl episode, Millar and Wynne point out that:
[disagreements between scientists] become difficult to interpret, other than in terms of bias or incompetence. Divergences between the data and interpretations of pressure groups … and the official sources are attributed to the former [bias]; those between different official agencies … to the latter [incompetence]. Only in a handful of the more reflective [newspaper] articles … is there any suggestion that such conflicts are a product of an inherently messy and inexact measuring process, and the sort of data that were wanted are, in principle, unobtainable.
(Millar and Wynne, 1988)
Thus one more requirement is added to what a curriculum for science literacy needs to deliver – a recognition that science professionals in disagreement about the interpretation of data can be a legitimate feature of science.
The Chernobyl episode in the media also raised queries about the degree of risk involved via radioactive contamination. Here too there were problems of representation, both in scientific and political contexts. Predictions about the degree of risk changed in the aftermath of the event, as shifts in the prevailing winds brought more of the radioactivity from the explosion closer to the UK; naturally enough, this triggered media consternation, with accusations of political complacency. Estimating the level of risk faced by UK citizens proved problematic; estimates offered by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) were of a ‘few tens of deaths over the next 50 years’. The sparse data to hand and uncertainty about the links between level of exposure and the likelihood of developing cancer meant that figures were ‘best guesses’. But when such a phrase was used in public, there were concerns that approximations of this sort were unacceptably loose. Indeed, some politicians felt that such imprecise pronouncements were unhelpful and ‘unscientific’. The fact that extrapolation from meagre data and informed guesswork is typical of much of this type of data of public relevance was not highlighted in the media, but rather the NRPB's competence and motives were questioned. It is clear then that making sense of such an episode, in terms of the reliability of the data, was far from straightforward and the difficulty of producing authoritative data in such circumstances was largely unrecognised and unreported.