Science, the Environment, and Society
Chapter Study Outline
Science and Society
Sociologists of science look at the interactions between science and society.
A paradigm is the framework within which scientists operate. There are particular
paradigms for particular branches of scientific research.
According to Thomas Kuhn, normal science is the science conducted within an existing
paradigm. During the practice of normal science, discoveries may be made that add to or
clarify, but don’t challenge, the existing paradigm.
Thomas Kuhn theorizes that scientific revolutions, also called paradigm shifts, occur
when enough anomalies accrue during the practice of normal science to challenge the
Normative science is the notion that science is unaffected by the personal beliefs or
values of scientists but rather follows objective rules of evidence. In practice, however,
social factors such as funding availability, government policies (which in turn can be
affected by interest groups), and international pressure or competition can affect choices
about what scientific research is pursued.
Boundary work refers to research conducted on the border between legitimate and
nonlegitimate science, either within a specific scientific discipline or between disciplines.
Anthropologists Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar claim that scientific facts don’t just
reveal themselves through experiments and research but are socially constructed as
scientists debate findings, discuss results, and work through disagreements, all of which
is influenced by unequal power relations between researchers.
The Matthew effect, a term coined by Robert Merton, refers to the notion that certain
scientific results get more notice and have more influence based on the existing prestige
of the researchers involved.
Agriculture and the Environment
The majority of scientists agree that the roots of global warming can be linked to
human activity such as deforestation and the burning of coal, gas, and oil. At the same
time, global warming is predicted to have a strong impact on human society,
primarily through devastating natural disasters such as prolonged heat waves, larger and
more frequent hurricanes, and debilitating droughts.
The term “organic” is often used as a catchall for foods that are seemingly healthy,
“natural,” or produced on a small scale. In the United States specific guidelines have to
be followed in order for food products to be labeled “organic” or “made with organic
The organic food market creates stratification in two ways: Because it is expensive to
maintain an organic farm, many smaller farmers are essentially priced out of the organic
farm market, which allows megafarms to dominate the market and use their influence to
change policies and guidelines to their advantage. Moreover, because organic products
are more expensive, high-income individuals are much more likely to purchase them and
reap their benefits than low-income people.
Genetically modified foods, also referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs),
are products whose genetic structures have been altered, usually to make them produce
higher yields. Proponents argue that GMOs help bring down food prices, reduce
dependence on pesticides and herbicides, reduce waste, and can even provide vitamin and
mineral content that may be missing from a population’s diet—all of which is particularly
significant for developing countries.
Critics of GMOs argue that they create risks to the environment and human health that
have not been adequately evaluated.
Ulrich Beck developed the concept of the risk society and identified two main categories
of risks: external risks and manufactured risks. A risk society is a society that is
concerned with mitigating risks, particularly manufactured risks that are unequally
distributed by socioeconomic status and other dimensions of power.
Charles Perrow argues that disasters resulting from manufactured or natural risks are
inevitable but that society can and should reduce the impact of such risks (through
wise policy choices).
The green revolution refers broadly to two agricultural trends of the twentieth century:
the introduction of high-yield crop varietals in developing countries and improvements in
agricultural technologies such as irrigation systems, fertilizers, and pesticides.
The green revolution is widely credited with increasing agricultural productivity
throughout the developing world, increasing incomes, increasing the value of formal
schooling, and making farming more of a collective, community endeavor. Critics of the
green revolution argue that farmers become more dependent on a smaller number of
crops, which exposes them to risks if those crops fail, reduces the variety in their diet,
and depletes the soil of nutrients. Green revolution trends place a great deal of pressure
on existing water resources and alter traditional water management techniques.
Biotechnology and the Human Genome
The goal of the Human Genome Project was to identify and map all of the genes in
human DNA. Researchers involved in the project recognized that understanding the
genetic make-up of the human species raised many social, ethical, and legal issues.
Among the social issues raised are concerns about privacy, stratification, and
DNA testing is now marketed for a variety of purposes, one of which is to determine a
person’s racial origins. However, there are still questions about the accuracy of the
testing and how this information might be used. DNA testing is not simply a
straightforward scientific process but one that is closely intertwined with social factors.
Reproductive cloning involves making a genetic copy of an existing person or organism;
research cloning involves making a genetic copy of cells that can be used for research
purposes. Human cloning does have potential benefits, but it is fraught with legal, ethical,
and moral questions.
Computers and the Internet
The digital divide refers to unequal access to and knowledge of technological advances
based on socioeconomic status. With regard to computers and the Internet, the digital
divide encompasses differences in people’s ability to access the Internet (whether or not
they have access to a computer and a connection), how frequently they access it, their
knowledge of the Internet and its capabilities, and their ability to search and evaluate
The social divide refers to stratification in information technology within countries and
the global divide refers to stratification in information technology between countries.
One of the biggest gaps in the social divide in the United States is between urban and
rural users. The gap between the United States and many developing countries,
particularly in Africa, is staggering.
Some people feel that technology, particularly as related to the Internet, can serve to close
the gap between rich and poor countries because physical accessibility to markets is not
required and poor countries can get a toehold in the digital economy. Others, however,
worry that this technology will just help the rich get richer and make it even harder for
poor countries to catch up.