SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  3 November 2011
Volume 12 Issue 11

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Mercury Pollution - Stepping Out of the Scientific Framework

Michael C. Newman and Sharon L. Zuber (editors, Mercury Pollution. A Transdisciplinary Treatment)

The sociologist, Mark Granovetter (Am J Sociol 78: 1360, 1973) was the first to offer the strength-of-weak-ties explanation for an idiosyncrasy of information flow among people. Information moves freely and comfortably within groups of individuals with similar backgrounds but exchange between dissimilar groups is less common and, when it occurs, is often accompanied by cognitive dissonance. People - being people - are drawn more toward comfortable exchange with their group members than to the less comfortable exchange with members of other groups. This behavior suffices to meet a group’s needs until a problem emerges that requires novel information to solve. According to Granovetter, the information diffusing into a group from outside is more likely to provide the solution than information already in the group: the weak link between groups becomes a strength.

What does this have to do with mercury pollution? Mercury pollution occurs in a world peopled by diverse groups who experience and gather insight about pollution’s costs from distinct vantages. The strength-of-weak-ties concept suggests that eventual resolution of the perceived mercury problem will likely emerge from exchange among dissimilar groups, including nonscientists and nontechnologists.

We based the book, Mercury Pollution. A Transdisciplinary Treatment (CRC Press, 2012) on this premise. We intended "…to purposely step out of the conventional scientific framework for treating mercury and to explore the wider human experience with mercury"(page 11). To encourage exchange among many groups about mercury pollution, we built on the interdisciplinary, international mission of the College of William & Mary’s Global Inquiry Group. We approached performing and visual artists, treaty negotiators, historians, communications and media specialists, photojournalists, scientists, sociologists, and writers with the request to contribute to a unique endeavor. The book offers out of the ordinary viewpoints about mercury pollution to environmental professionals, teachers, and the general public. Chapter authors were challenged to write for an audience who might not understand a discipline-specific, "comfortable," vocabulary, and imagine ways of communicating that would not dilute their material but make it accessible to a wide audience. What connects each of the different perspectives represented in our book - the weak link - is the human element. The deformed hand of a Minamata victim, photographed by Eugene and Aileen Smith, "resonates in a way that a written report citing dangerous levels of mercury poisoning cannot" (page 176) argues artist Elizabeth Mead. Sociologist Kelly Joyce looks at "two [EPA and FDA] divergent ways of framing the dangers associated with fish consumption," confronting the politics of tuna consumption and fish advisories. Fish advisories, she argues, are embedded in culture and reflect economic, social, and political interests as well as scientific expertise. This analysis is supported by the content analysis of USA Today, by Christine Mowery and Sarah Jane Brubaker, that "enables us to understand how environmental risk is socially constructed and communicated" (page 115). How do gender and class factor into the way mercury hazards are reported? Why has the media not done more to emphasize the serious risk of mercury poisoning? The authors raise as many questions as provide answers, indicating how complex environmental problems can be and how difficult it is to move from laboratory findings to print. However, when information does find its way into print or in digital form on the internet, how can an average person judge what is true? John Drummond’s knowledgeable examination of web materials regarding mercury pollution can help us trace information to its source. Each person, he argues, is a "node in the web of the exchange of ideas" and is responsible for questioning and critically examining information no matter what its source concluding that "knowledge…like mercury spreads easily, builds up, and is terrifically hard to remove once absorbed" (page 137).

We understood the gamble of pursuing such an approach. The reason it is risky is amply documented by sociologists of information movement among groups. Group exposure to novel information or ideas produces cognitive dissonance and discomfort. "Innovators…are frequently disdained by their fellow members in a local system. They interact primarily with cosmopolite friends who are outside of the local system" (EM Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 1995). Readers trained as environmental scientists could react in this manner. However, the risk is justified by the pressing and pervasive nature of contemporary environmental issues, like mercury pollution.

Figure 1 (left), Figure 2 (right).

A novel tool from outside environmental sciences can help reinforce two key themes of this short article. The tool itself illustrates the virtue of drawing from outside one’s discipline and the insight generated with the tool underscores the broadening scale of pollution problems confronting society. The tool, N-Gram was just developed in culturomics (Michel et al. Science online 12/16/2010; Hand Nature 474:436 (2011)) to extract insight from the millions of books digitized by Google. It can search back two centuries for phrases such as the unigram “mercury” or bigram “mercury pollution” in books written in many languages. Figure 1 depicts the results for bigrams reflecting early to most recent pollution issues of this century. Peak heights reflect the percentage of scanned English language books containing the bigram. Clearly, the scale of pollution problems has expanded throughout the century from sewage discharge point sources at the opening of the century to the current warming of the entire biosphere. Figure 2 documents the surge in references to “mercury pollution” in the English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish literature during the late 1960s. (Oddly, no citations appear for the simplified Chinese equivalent, 汞污染, although many did for mercury, 汞, alone.) Not only has mercury pollution broadened to include the entire biosphere, but also, as Figure 2 shows, it now concerns diverse cultures, that is, all corners of the noosphere. To find solutions to global problems will require getting used to cognitive dissonance and seeking out those valuable weak links by engagement across groups differing in cultural beliefs, political structures, economic development and technological evolution. As Aileen Mioko Smith writes in the book preface, "We are, indeed, all active players in the global mercury picture. Mercury is a reflection of our interconnectedness."

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