Sick Building Syndrome and Uncertain Science: Part IV with author Michelle Murphy

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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Part 4 with Jody Roberts and Michelle Murphy--discussing her book Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty--follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: The book is titled "Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty." Why is uncertainty a problem? Or, perhaps we should ask, where or when is uncertainty a problem?

MM: Uncertainty, I would suggest, is a constitutive feature of much environmental politics, and particularly chemical exposures. Legal standards that demand we know the predictable and regular cause of an exposure, and have certain knowledge that this particular exposure (definable in time, place, and intensity) caused that particular injury, creates a politics in which uncertainty can play a powerful role. For positions opposed to environmental regulation, uncertainty then becomes a desirable attribute of an environmental problem. In other words, uncertainty is both a constitutive effect of our ways of understanding the world, and a politics encouraged.

WF: So how does this play out in the case of SBS?

MM: Sick Building Syndrome could only come into being through this politics of uncertainty. By definition Sick Building Syndrome has no known cause. On the one hand, labor struggles made use of uncertainty in the form of nonspecificity and noncausality to gather diverse health complaints as a common problem. On the other hand, the tobacco, pesticide and chemical industries fostered this uncertain structure to SBS because it was a way of materializing chemical exposures that could not be regulated or litigated. Do you find something similar in your own work on endocrine disrupters?

WF: Yes, but I think in a different way than what you've described here. Maybe it's one reason that uncertainty as a political tool has become so powerful - its many faces make it hard to understand exactly how it's being implemented. In your case, uncertainty is leveraged in two ways, it seems. From the workers perspective, it gives them access to a category, what Leigh Starr might call the category of remainders, a place that accommodates all of those "symptoms" that otherwise have no home. But while those being exposed were leveraging uncertainty to producing something that could be identified, the producers of the likely sources of exposure used uncertainty to diffuse accountability - how can we be sure it was their pesticide? This reminds me of Ulrich Beck's discussion of a pollution case in Germany where everyone agreed there was pollution leading to health problems, but the courts couldn't decide who was to be held accountable. In this case, life in a risk society, as Beck would put it, is characterized precisely by these sorts of problems. And perhaps this is why we've seen those in the chemical sector, especially in the wake of Bhopal more than twenty years ago, embrace responsibility. Responsibility only matters when there is accountability. But the uncertainty card disrupts that move from the former to the latter.

MM: And what about the case of endocrine disrupters that you are researching?

WF: In the case of endocrine disruptors (ED - not the ED that Bob Dole and Mike Ditka get paid to talk about), I think we have a slightly more complicated picture. Imagine we have three actor groups, not just the two - exposure victims and potential producers - we discussed above adding to that mix something broadly labeled "scientists" (even though scientists also exist in each of these other two categories). In the case of ED, The conversation over uncertainty is happening between the scientists and manufacturers (with regulators somewhere in the middle, as in your story). The politics of uncertainty gets played out in such a way that the pressure is for more research. Because there is no exposure group to be demanding action (we're all exposed, as the CDC will tell us, but we might not know quite what that means for us or future generations), the focus is less on avoiding legal accountability. I think the tactic is to keep it an uncertainty issue related only to research and to keep it from ever getting to the point of a court issue.

MM: It's interesting to see how the tactics and quandaries of the 1980s and 1990s morphed and blossomed into the kinds of practices and imperatives you're looking at. I like your point that uncertainty produces an imperative for more research. I think there was some of that going on with SBS, but less developed than now. The call for more research was used by all sides: as a stalling action that showed lack of consensus, and as a way to generate more knowledge about what was going on. I think it is also a more generalizable dynamic. For example, in the long history of racial science, when race could not be concretely pinpointed in whatever part of the body or mind or process that scientists were looking at, this didn't lead just to rejecting race as a category, but instead to reaffirming the need to study it more.

WF: And so, let's get to it. Thanks Michelle for getting this conversation going.

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Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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