Objectivity – Safety, Technology and Food
Subproject 3: „How safe is safe enough?“ Practices of evidence for technical safety in times of societal uncertainty (Zachmann)
Users’ and consumers’ demand for evidence for scientific and technical knowledge becomes especially urgent, and especially critical, if their own health or even life is at stake – in other words: as soon as the issue of safety is concerned. The subprojects 3 and 4 start from the hypothesis that safety-critical areas became an increasingly important focus of attention during the second half of the 20th century, and particularly during the period of structural change at the end of the post-war economic boom. Accidents in nuclear power plants, statistics of rising traffic fatalities, or publicized food safety scandals triggered crises of evidence, leading to demands for the objectification of the knowledge used in the assessment of safety of products and processes. As traditional methods for the assessment of safety based on senses and practical knowledge were no longer perceived as convincing or acceptable, this demand became even more urgent.
Objectification promises universality instead of situatedness, as well as general (global) validity and acceptance. It is built on the assumption that abstraction from subjective and local conditions of knowledge production is possible. One of the main strategies chosen to reach this goal was and is quantification, which operates on basis of the universal language of numbers and strict logical rules. However, quantification results in the definition of safety through risk, as the statistical probability of the occurrence (or non-occurrence) of damage events is assessed. This influences the socio-epistemic arrangements responsible for the generation and the use of evidence for safety. Expert discourses on the issue of safety in science, industry and trade (as well as the debates in the contact zones between these areas) are based increasingly on results from risk research, which became institutionalized since the 1970s. This suggests that probability assessments as evidence for safety gained in importance, and that the identification and quantification of risks became a common language in the “trading zone” between different expert discourses.
How and where did this type of evidence for safety, based on trust in calculatbility, begin to prevail against alternative practices of evidence such as deterministic procedures (material testing, meat inspection etc.) or sensual perception? How did the technization of knowledge production, which is based on quantification (e.g. modelling or simulation), influence the credibility of safety claims, if the generated evidence is based on procedures which are not transparent for actors in the socio-epistemic arrangement? These questions is highly relevant for both sub-projects. At the same time, both case studies show the increasing influence of consumers, whose importance for the co-production of evidence practices for safety requires further study. Both sub-projects are particularly interested in the specific zones of contact or overlap between professionalized experts and non-professionalized “laymen” – especially as they regard the question which safety concepts are accepted as evident (practicing evidence), and how they are integrated into regulatory practice (evidencing practice).
Planned joint activities include an expert round table with practitioners in the field of technical and food safety, whose experience and knowledge will be very valuable for our research. In addition, we propose to organize a joint international workshop on the development of risk analysis and the meaning of statistics in the evaluation of safety, seen in historic and current context.