Public and Technical Interdependence: Regulatory Controversy, Out-Law Discourse, and the Messy Case of Olestra

Article excerpt

By some accounts, Procter & Gamble's fat substitute olestra (brand name Olean) (1) is a dangerous food additive that can "cause diarrhea and cramps and that can increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and blindness" (Jacobson, 1998, p.2). Procter & Gamble (P&G), on the other hand, claims that olestra improves public health because it "lets you enjoy the wonderful taste of your favorite snacks without adding any fat or calories" (Procter & Gamble, 1996b, p. 8). The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) led a multi-year chorus of opposition to the product, and when olestra finally did receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, that approval was laden with conditions. Products that include olestra must be fortified with vitamins, labeled to indicate possible side effects, and studied for long-term effects on consumers (Food and Drug Administration, 1996).

Olestra's journey to market is just one example of regulatory controversy, but in this essay it will provide the vehicle for exploring the nature of regulatory controversy and the opportunities it provides for what Sloop and Ono (1997) have called "out-law discourse." Regulatory agencies attempt to mitigate some of the dangers Americans face every day. OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulates Americans' work environment, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulates air traffic control procedures for the planes on which Americans fly, and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulates products and emissions that might affect America's air and water. Americans live at the center of a regulated universe. And as federal regulations are created, they are engineered to address both a public good and a measurable technical standard of safety. This state of affairs would seem to confirm Goodnight's (1982) warning that technical sphere arguments are being elevated so that they int rude upon deliberations that should take place in the public sphere.

Decisions about regulation, when contested, create "science-based controversy" (Brante, 1993, p. 181). This is controversy based not solely on competing knowledge claims, but on various factors that include public consequences of the controversy's resolution. Such a controversy blurs firm distinctions between the technical and public spheres of argument.

The blurring is not only in the direction of technical sphere encroachment on the public sphere, however; in fact, several scholars have argued that distinctions among all three of Goodnight's (1982) "spheres" (personal, technical, and public) are not absolute. Phillips (1999) argued that no public sphere per se is necessary for true controversy, and Taylor (1996) claimed that distinctions between spheres "are more a matter of relative emphasis on particular pragmatic rules or strategies and not a matter of conceptual distinctions" (p. 125). Rowland (1986) offered the Challenger accident as an example of public influence on technical decisions and an indistinct boundary between the two, and Hogan (1991) critiqued a "televisual" rhetoric that relies on technical assumptions (in public argument) without meeting the standards for technical argument Willard (1996) suggested that rather than relying on three discrete spheres of argument, critics should instead study a greater number of "latitudes of comprehension" and how information is "translated" across them (p. 303).

Regulatory controversy exemplifies Phillips' (1996) assertion that public and technical discourse can easily be intertwined. When Taylor (1996) called the public/technical division a "false dilemma," he noted that such a division assumes "a unidirectional process of influence, from the technical to the public, without a clear recognition of the synergistic mutuality of the two domains" (p. 128). Brante (1993) argued that the divisions between "scientific controversies" and "political controversies" have become blurred, and Goodnight (1982) has acknowledged that arguments sometimes cross borders between spheres. …