US Long-Term Ecological Research Network
Wisconsin’s acid rain battle: science, communication, and public policy, 1979-1989
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Whenever science is drawn into the public eye as a component of some controversial issue, it is likely to be distorted during the process of generalization and simplification. Sometimes the media tend to sensationalize emerging scientific controversies, which often alienates scientists and further impedes the flow of information. Couple this tendency with intentional misstatements by special interest groups, and considerable public confusion can result. An example of this occurred in the DDT controversy of the 1960s, when chemical companies deliberately withheld evidence of the risk of DDT, issued false statements, and engaged in a campaign to discredit citizens and scientists who challenged the use of the insecticide.1 Yet, although some misunderstanding of science may arise as a by-product of public participation in complex technical problems, citizen involvement can also lead to prudent environmental decision-making. A democratic society, moreover, relies upon broad citizen participation in debates concerning environmental risk and public policy. Citizens, therefore, must have a basic comprehension of the science involved. Furthermore, some degree of public understanding is usually prerequisite to the passage of responsible legislation or other regulatory action; so the communication process between technical experts, policy-makers, and citizens often becomes crucial to the outcome of scientific controversies.