Date of Award

2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Biological and Environmental Sciences

Department

Biological Sciences

First Advisor

Bryan M. Dewsbury

Abstract

This dissertation presents a discursive case study of a recent public scientific controversy surrounding proposed field trials of Oxitec’s genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Despite endorsements by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, starting in 2011, and the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval in 2016, field trial releases in the region have been stalled by intense public opposition. The research presented here attempts to better understand the nature of this controversy through a close examination of science communication and public engagement efforts. Avoiding the assumption that resistance to scientific and technological interventions is reducible to a lack of information and/or scientific literacy on the part of critical publics, this dissertation adds to a growing body of literature that challenges deficit-based interpretations of public scientific controversies.

The individual chapters of this dissertation are organized according to the types of data used to inform this research. Organizing the chapters in this way is intended to showcase how resistance to the field trials took shape in different arenas, and highlight the different positions and discursive strategies employed by a multiplicity of actors. Chapters 1 and 2 examine transcripts from two town hall meetings (held in the Florida Keys in 2012 and 2014), to map the discursive repertoires of promoters and opponents of the field trials, and achieve a deeper understanding of the imaginaries, concerns, and boundary tensions embedded in institutional, regulatory, and public discourses. Chapter 3 utilizes data on social media trends (during the height of GM mosquito discussions in the Florida Keys between 2015 and 2016) to better understand how interested publics both engaged with information on GM mosquitoes, and managed to reframe discussions on their risks and benefits, through sharing. Chapter 4 presents narrative data from in-depth interviews (conducted between 2018 and 2019) with four activists who were instrumental in leading the resistance to the field trials, to explicate how lived experiences and identities are invoked in sensemaking around the risks of GM mosquitoes, and how resistance to the field trials is retrospectively rationalized. My analyses of these data sets are grounded firmly in a social constructionist paradigm, and integrate a variety of social constructionist theories and frameworks. As insights into the nature of the controversy are gleaned primarily through the lens of language and interaction, the majority of my methods are qualitative in nature. Occasionally, however, I do integrate quantitative techniques (Chapter 3).

The chapters in this dissertation are meant to serve as stand-alone, publishable manuscripts, and so each one approaches the controversy from a different angle. Each chapter employs a different methodology and analytical framework, and offers its own unique findings. At the same time, each individual manuscript is informed by, and is intended to build upon, findings from other manuscripts. When viewed as a collection of manuscripts, the major analytical contributions of this dissertation can be summarized as follows. First, institutionalized standards of biotechnology evaluation and communication, and their embedded imaginations of risk, progress, and ‘the public,’ largely constrained opportunities for meaningful democratic deliberations and contributed to the intractability of the controversy. Second, divergent assessments of the risks and benefits of GM mosquitoes (between proponents and opponents of the field trials) were illustrative of deeper ontological disagreements and rhetorical efforts to redraw or obfuscate various symbolic boundaries (between science and other institutions, between organisms, between laboratory and society). Third, issues related to risk could not be extricated from issues related to trust in public reactions to the field trial plans. Along the same lines, opponents’ willingness to trust in technical evaluations of risk was undermined by the hype surrounding the necessity and benefits of GM mosquitoes, a perceived lack of transparency, objectivity, and consistency in science and risk communication efforts, past failures on the part of regulatory bodies to appropriately predict and manage the risk of innovation, and institutionalized representations of critical publics as unscientific and anti-technology. Finally, critical publics often took on the role of alternative science communicators in GM mosquito discussions through the production, translation, reframing and/or dissemination of selective science-related information on GM mosquitoes. In the process, these alternative science communicators also, at times, circulated rumors and conspiracy theories. While acknowledging that the spread of misinformation is frequently interest-driven and harmful to the credibility of science and evidence-based policy, the perspective put forth by this dissertation also encourages it to be viewed not as an indicator of public ignorance, but as an expression of anxieties surrounding contemporary scientific and regulatory practices.

Given the high-level of media attention devoted to, and scholarly interest in, the controversy in the Florida Keys, the research that follows is not the first (and likely not the last) to explore the issues presented here. To the best of my ability, I have attempted to integrate, reference, and build on the literature that was available at the time that the manuscripts, and final dissertation, were submitted for publication. It is important to keep in mind that this work explores the controversy only during a specific snapshot in time. Because GM mosquito discussions in the Florida Keys are ongoing, and some regulatory decisions are still pending, some of the information in this dissertation may be rendered obsolete or subject to change in the future, as new details and events emerge. Moreover, most of the discourse examined in this dissertation is representative only of the views and perspectives of the most vocal and involved participants in field trial discussions. I caution against making sweeping generalizations about larger publics based on this data. Further implications of this research to the science communication and public understanding of science literature, as well as additional limitations, are discussed in the individual chapters.

Available for download on Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Share

COinS