Science as Comfort

The strategic use of science in post-disaster settings

Authored by: Brian Mayer , Kelly Bergstrand , Katrina Running

Routledge Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society

Print publication date:  May  2014
Online publication date:  June  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415531528
eBook ISBN: 9780203101827
Adobe ISBN: 9781136237164


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The recent catastrophic disasters of the twenty-first century have fueled a growing body of literature in science and technology studies (STS) on the relationship between science and the social dynamics of disaster prevention, management, and recovery. From the accidental release of nearly five million barrels of oil from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010 to the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, the need for improving our understanding of how technoscience is implicated in the way political institutions prepare for and deal with disasters has never been clearer. As Fortun and Frickel (2012) note, “disaster has been a blind spot in STS.” It remains to be seen whether our existing understandings of science and society are applicable to the unique and often chaotic conditions surrounding disasters. Thus, while there are some studies on the impact of regulatory responses to disasters (for example, Frickel et al. 2009), as well as citizen participation in science post-disaster (for example, McCormick 2012), STS would benefit from greater understanding of the use of science and technology in the recovery from disruptive events. Toward this end, we examine the use of seafood testing procedures following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We find that beyond simply generating knowledge, the seafood testing program served multiple purposes, from attempting to boost consumer confidence in Gulf seafood to making science accessible to seafood workers. In short, science was used as an institutional tool to reduce uncertainty generated by the disaster for both consumers and producers of seafood. Despite these aims, the testing garnered widespread negative reactions in the media, reflecting a culture of public distrust of government that had emerged in the aftermath of the disaster.

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