Making and Remaking Scientific Facts: Continuity and Transformation in Genetic Mutations and California Drought since the 1950s

Daniel Navon, University of California, San Diego
Haley McInnis, University of California, San Diego

How do scientific facts change over time? The idea that facts and disciplines undergo radical change, or even crumble away altogether, lies at the very heart of the sociology of science and knowledge. However, this paper addresses a different kind of historical transformation—one that is underwritten by a deep continuity in the facts in question. Drawing on Fleck (1935) and Haydu (1998), we develop a framework of “reiterated fact-making” that helps us understand how scientific facts are made and remade according to prevailing conditions of possibility and the different networks of actors who adopt them as objects of practice. To demonstrate the utility of this approach, we trace the shifting status of two seemingly disparate sorts of scientific objects since the 1950s: genetic mutations and drought in California. First, we show how genetic mutations like XYY, Fragile X and the 22q11.2 microdeletion have been remade as facts over the last half-century. For decades, they attracted avid interest from researchers in human genetics, but very little attention elsewhere. Yet today, the same mutations have all become rich objects of clinical practice, multidisciplinary research and patient advocacy, leading to radical revisions of their very phenotypes. Second, we show how three distinct dry periods in the 1950s, 1970s and 2000s were defined and responded to as droughts in California. At first, drought was understood straightforwardly by water managers as the result of dry meteorological conditions that could be mitigated with engineering projects. Today, a diverse assortment of experts and stakeholder groups view it as a complex phenomenon involving multiple social and climatological factors, leading to different definitions of drought and frameworks for response. In sum, we show how scientific facts are simultaneously held stable and transformed when new networks of expertise and social mobilization form around them.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 170. Expertise II: Classifications and Definitions