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The story begins with the radioactive cloud that formed after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and then moved to Northern and Western Europe. The rain that fell from the cloud was claimed by ‘experts’ to be harmless. Residents of Cumbria were told that the water was safe for consumption by humans as well as by sheep. Sheep rearing was one of the main means of livelihoods in Cumbria at the time. A few months later the scientists found that the soil on which the lambs were grazing was contaminated with high levels of radio-caesium, which came from the Chernobyl cloud. The scientists again reassured the farmers. They claimed the radio-caesium will remain in the soil for only 21 days and so a ban was posted on Cumbria sheep for 21 days. After testing the soil again 21 days later, the levels of radio-caesium were still the same. Their prediction failed…again. After this, the scientists introduced an infinite ban on sheep from Cumbria. It was difficult for farmers to keep the sheep because there is no natural pasture in Cumbria in the winter and so the costs for hay would be enormous. They were unable to sell the wool because it was dyed orange by the ‘experts’. The farmers had two choices. They could sell the sheep at extremely low prices or believe the scientists who kept predicting that the contamination will go away with time. Many farmers believed the experts and kept waiting and waiting until they could sell their sheep uncontaminated. In the process, they lost a lot of money or just gave up. The nightmare finally stopped when it turned out that the method the ‘experts’ were using to test the soil in Cumbria was not appropriate for the kind of soils found in Cumbria. If the ‘experts’ reflected upon their methods and used the appropriate method to test the soil they would find that the soil and vegetation on the pasture where the sheep grazed were never contaminated in the first place. The scientists were using outdated research and methods that were used in completely different environments.
I want this story to remind us and remind ‘experts’ to constantly reflect upon and be more modest about what is considered ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. Brian Wynne’s study, which I summarized above, illustrates that conventional knowledge and truth is constructed and framed by people of a specific place and time. Things that we consider ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ do not simply float somewhere in abstract space, but they are socially constructed. People, space and time all contribute to what we view as ‘fact’ and ‘truth’. As such, ‘facts’ do not stay constant and vary from place to place.
To read more about the study, go to:
Wynne, Brian.1996. “May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide.” Pp. 44-83 in Risk, Environment and Modernity, edited by Scott Lash, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Brian Wynne. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications