PHRONETIC SKILL AND RISK GOVERNANCE: HOW DOES PRACTICAL WISDOM WORK IN NEW TECHNOLOGY RISK GOVERNANCE OF CARBON NANOTUBES AND ENDOCRINE DISRUPTING CHEMICALS

A. Toikka & N. Honkela, UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI, Helsinki, Finland

Abstract

New technologies posit complex risks with considerable uncertainties. Adequate understanding and response requires the integration of risk knowledge based in multiple fields of expertise. We propose that this integration process can be understood through the concept of phronesis or practical wisdom, defined by Aristotle as being a ‘true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man’. Risk governance requires the complementation of disciplinary understanding through active use of their phronetic integrative skills. These skills enable individuals to rise above their knowledge domains and to understand the logic of other domains through pattern recognition, or the ability to recognize complex perceptual patterns of non-symbolic nature.

We analyze two areas of new technology development: carbon nanontubes and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Risks in both areas are characterized by considerable uncertainty and ambiguity: complex cause-effect links challenge risk assessment procedures, and interpretative and normative challenges question the valuations of benefits and harms.

We demonstrate phronesis and pattern recognition in these areas through case-studies. Carbon nanotubes are manufactured cylindrical allotropes of carbon with many unique properties and applications. They have recently attracted concern due to their similarity with asbestos, and a budding scientific literature has emerged around the hypothesis that health concerns of asbestos might be applicable to carbon nanotubes, too. We analyze the literature through the lens of pattern recognition in risk concepts: the most interesting advances were made when researcher’s took the initiative to utilize these skills. Endocrine-disruptors are usually defined as exogenous substances that alter function(s) of the endocrine or hormone system and consequently cause adverse health effects in organisms or (sub)populations. Here, we analyze the expert deliberation taking place in a series of Finnish workshops on the topic through the lens of pattern recognition in risk concepts. Finally, we compare the results of the two cases.

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