Monday I participated in a workshop on the use of multiple water quality models in the Chesapeake Bay Program – the benefits and drawbacks. Throughout the day, much of the discussion centered around the ways that multiple models could improve the science of water quality management – there was almost unanimous agreement on that, though there was contention about specifically how it should be done. The other major issue was the social and political challenges that would arise from a multiple modeling approach. There was almost unanimous agreement about this as well, and the question was repeatedly raised and then pushed back until the social science panel. Then we got up there and everything changed.
We did not present on the ways that social science could be used to educate people about or improve acceptance of multiple models. Instead we discussed the social and political benefits and drawbacks to using multiple models. In particular, we offered the idea of using participatory modeling methods to augment the existing modeling effort. From there, the discussion turned into a heated debate about participatory modeling. I have to say, I was taken a bit by surprise. I went in expecting the modelers to be receptive to increased participation in modeling, at least in the ideal if not in practice. I expected them to have practical concerns such as how to incorporate participatory methods into the existing modeling project, or how to solicit participation, etc. The purpose of my presentation was to suggest that multiple models might be an avenue for bringing in participatory methods in an easier way. What I didn’t expect was the intensely political opposition to participatory modeling that came out. The arguments fell into two broad categories:
1) It’s too difficult – we don’t have time or money; how do we get 17 million people to participate; the train has left the station; etc.
2) Modeling isn’t the place for participation – the public doesn’t understand modeling and so can’t participate; the public shouldn’t be allowed to influence the science; model building isn’t the place for participation – decision making is; etc.
The first set of arguments is largely practical and easy enough to address. We’re not talking about starting from scratch with a new Bay Model, nor are we saying to make the Bay Model participatory. We’re pointing out that a multiple models approach could add to the existing modeling project in social and political ways just as other modelers were earlier pointing out how multiple models could improve accuracy. No one suggested that they need to get 17 million people to participate in model building – this was a sort of hyperbolic claim on their part that was used to make participatory modeling sound “ludicrous” to borrow a word from one of the modelers. But participatory methods don’t demand 100% participation any more than government demands 100% representation. This raises questions about who represents the stakeholders and how to solicit participation, but is very different from saying we need to get 17 million people involved.
Those arguments were frustrating, but it was the second group of arguments that really annoyed me. These are the political issues, and they strike me as defending a domain of authority even though they are phrased in the most well meaning way of protecting the environment and educating the public. The argument, generally, was that science and modeling is not the right place for including the public. Rather, the public should be included as part of a decision making framework. In this view, modeling is seen as a politically innocent practice that informs a decision making process which can be more or less democratic itself, but that these political issues cannot be made to influence the science. This is just the kind of cliche technocratic thinking that STS and other social sciences have been working to refute. From this perspective, I would argue that the decision making framework and the science cannot be separated. Many important and very political decisions are made in the process of building a model that have enormous repercussions for people who live within the watershed. Therefore, it is precisely in the scientific process that the public should be included – not as mere informants, but as co-constructors of knowledge.
There was one positive outcome, I think, and that was a shift in discourse regarding the role of social science in the Bay restoration effort. Instead of presenting to them the ways we could use social science to get the public to buy in to the scientific knowledge – specifically the value of multiple models – we presented on the social position of science and how multiple models could rework that position. This was not what they expected and it was not what they wanted, but it forced them to consider their position and to look at our role differently. It certainly won’t be a lasting change, but it’s a start.