When laypeople are right and experts are wrong: Lessons from love canal
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Love Canal, a suburban town in New York State built on a waste disposal site of a former chemical factory, provoked one of the first major environmental controversies. It involved scientists, citizens and politicians, including the US Congress and President. The controversy raises many important problems, and the article focuses in particular on the uses of scientific knowledge and the role of scientists. Although the scientists worked for the authorities, they regarded their knowledge as objective and their advice as neutral. However, the residents of Love Canal did not trust them, and engaged their own scientist. At the time of the controversy (1978) the Precautionary Principle had not been formulated, but the controversy involved many issues that have later been related to the principle. One particular issue was the uses of statistics, and the relationship between type 1 and type 2 statistical errors. The article relates the controversy to recent debates on the proper use of significance tests and statistics, and argues that context and values have to be taken into consideration. It concludes that in cases like Love Canal it is imperative to inform about uncertainty and to involve all stakeholders.