Exposed Science Logic of Inquiry

I apologize that this is so late and has been rewritten. Exposed Science was my favorite book out of the three, and I may want to use similar methods for understanding retired automotive engineers in my master’s thesis.

Summary

In her book Exposed Science, Sara Shostak discusses the reasons for the molecularization of public health research. She starts with an anecdote about two-year-old Sunday Abek, who died from lead poisoning due to lead in her family’s apartment. She discusses how thousands of children are exposed to lead every year, how public health research contributes to regulation, and how some children are more likely to be exposed to lead and therefore are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning. The main focus of her book (her explanandum, which she describes as her ‘puzzle’) is “why and how environmental health scientists rallied around research on gene-environment interactions” (Shostak, p. 4).

The phenomenon that Shostak is trying to explain is the molecularization of environmental health research. However, she has multiple sub-explananda that she aims to explain throughout the book. They are found on page 4 as follows:

  1. Why would the NIEHS prioritize research on the genetics of lead absorption?
  2. What do scientists believe can be learned about how to prevent lead poisoning by looking deep inside the human body, at the molecular level?
  3. Why would scientists that are committed to public health choose to study gene-lead interactions?
  4. Is there any reason to think that knowledge about gene-environment interaction can help to protect low-income and minority children, who are most at risk of lead poisoning?
  5. Might research on gene-environment interaction obscure, however unintentionally, the social, political, and economic factors that make low-income and minority children particularly susceptible to lead poisoning?

Each explanandum has its own explanans, though Shostak does provide a general explanans that addresses the overall research interest. She states that the central argument is that scientists’ perceptions of and responses to the structural vulnerabilities of the field of environmental health sciences have both intended and unintended consequences for what we know about the somatic vulnerabilities of our bodies to environmental exposures” (p. 8).

I was particularly interested in the third question, about why public health scientists study gene-lead interactions. Her main answer to this question is that environmental health researchers are trying to make their field more robust and stronger against outside forces that would like to discredit it. Because environmental health research often leads to regulation (p. 5), it poses a threat to industry. According to Shostak, “‘manufacturing uncertainty’ has itself become a ‘big business’ as companies seek to prevent, delay, and overturn regulation” (p. 5). Examples of manufactured uncertainty include the tobacco industry and climate change deniers. In addition to this, scientists also “point to the rising power of the idea that all human disease is a genetic phenomenon” (p. 6); for example, Sloan Kettering is looking into the possible genetic causes of cancer[1]. Shostak argues that there is a possibility “that research on gene-environment interaction might generate not only a more robust basis for regulation, but also new biomedical markets for their research” (p. 6). This suggests that the biomedical industry may benefit from environmental health research.

Analysis

In Exposed Science, Shostak uses an inductive method; she says she is putting puzzle pieces together to answer a question. On page 226, she states that she is using “modified grounded theory and analytical-induction approach” to answer her question. She says that she isn’t going to use an analytic framework, but does mention fields theory and path dependence. She explicitly states that she is not using symbolic interactionist frameworks in her study. Her claims are interpretive; each chapter is used as a case study to validate larger, overarching arguments. The evidence that she uses includes participant observation, interviews, and archival research. She discusses her previous knowledge at length in the Afterword, which gives her some ‘insider knowledge’ into the ways in which environmental health scientists work.

Shostak makes a limited claim to generality; she suggests that the dynamics in this field can also appear in others. She uses her multiple sources of data to cross-check across references to get to the underlying meanings and handle contradictory evidence. She has multiple sets of interviews and sites, indicating that there is an iterative element to her methods. Her decision trail can be followed; she provides an appendix that goes through her research methods, including how she organized data, her use of purposive sampling, and the spaces in which she conducted her participant observation. When discussing the views of her participants, she uses direct quotes from her interviewees to give voice to them. The study is mixed-methods and multi-sited. Overall, this is a methodologically well-thought-out book with good writing and an interesting research interest.

[1] I know this because my dad is a participant, I don’t have an academic source.