Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama

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Behind the headlines of our time stands an unobtrusive army of science advisors. Panels of scientific, medical, and engineering experts evaluate the safety of the food we eat, the drugs we take, and the cars we drive. But despite the enormous influence of science advice, its authority is often problematic, and struggles over expert advice are thus a crucial aspect of contemporary politics. Science on Stage is a theoretically informed and empirically grounded study of the social process through which the credibility of expert advice is produced, challenged, and sustained.

Building on the sociology of Erving Goffman, the author analyzes science advice as a form of performance, examining how advisory bodies work to bring authoritative advice to the public stage. From this perspective, advisory bodies emerge as performers who engage in impression management: they selectively reveal and conceal themselves, actively presenting some things to their audiences while hiding others "backstage."

The book demonstrates that techniques for information control—including stagecraft, strategic self-presentation, and unauthorized disclosures or "leaks"—play a fundamental role in efforts to create and contest expert authority. The author uncovers this complex assemblage of dramaturgical machinery through a richly detailed comparative analysis of three controversial reports on diet and health, including a proposed revision to the Recommended Daily Allowances, prepared by the National Academy of Sciences—the most prestigious source of expert advice in the United States today.

This lively and accessible analysis—which includes its own drama, complete with Greek chorus—provides not only new insights about science advice but also a fresh look at the social dimensions of scientific writing. The theatrical metaphor highlights issues that more familiar theoretical frameworks often leave waiting in the wings. In the author's hands, scientific texts emerge not just as rhetorical constructions or forms of discourse, but also as crucial parts of systems for controlling the enclosure and disclosure of information, and thereby for structuring relations between experts and their audiences.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A useful contribution to discussions of methodologies for examining the role of scientific experts in public policy debates."—New Genetics and Society
Presents a study of the special process through which the credibility of expert advice is produced, challenged, and sustained. Analyzes science advice as a form of performance, examining how advisory bodies, especially the National Academy of Sciences, work to bring authoritative advice to the public stage. Reframes three specific controversies on diet and health, providing new insights into the social dimensions of scientific writing. The author teaches science and technology studies at Cornell University. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804736466
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Series: Writing Science
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 236
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Hilgartner is Assistant Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University.

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Table of Contents

Tables and Figures xv
1. Introduction 3
Science Advice as Public Drama 5
The Academy Complex 20
The Reports on Diet and Health 27
The Chapters Ahead 40
2. Staging Authoritative Reports 42
Front Stage: Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer 43
Backstage: The NRC Process 54
Leaks and Unauthorized Performances: The 1985 Draft of the RDAs 70
Conclusions 83
3. Attacking Advisory Reports 86
Attacking Toward Healthful Diets 88
Attacking Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer 95
The Fate of the Reports 105
4. The Character of the National Academy of Sciences 113
The Public Debate over the Demise of the 1985 Draft 115
The Academy's Announcement: A Drama of Order 116
A Letter from the Chairman: A Play in Three Acts 117
The Kamin Letter 128
The Dramas Compared 135
The Chairman's Reply 141
Conclusions 144
5. Conclusion 146
A. The Academy Announcement 151
B. The Kamin Letter 155
Notes 159
Bibliography 185
Index 205
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