Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Social Learning, Critical Reflection and the Perception of Facticity in Deliberation on Water Reuse

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Social Learning, Critical Reflection and the Perception of Facticity in Deliberation on Water Reuse

Article excerpt


Critical reflection involves the uncovering and understanding of the assumptions, which are made in the development of knowledge and the establishment and perception of facts. A capacity to understand the development of facts is proposed as an important outcome of social learning. The public perception of the facticity of expert scientific and technological knowledge is analysed in four sets of workshops conducted with publics who utilised recycled water, were within close proximity to water recycling schemes or lived in an area where planned water recycling schemes were to be implemented. The purpose of these workshops was to develop a social learning method, which could be utilised within public engagement about water reuse management. Jonathan Potter's concepts of offensive and defensive rhetoric and reifying and ironising discourse were used to describe how a public perceived expert knowledge as factual or resisted the facticity of expert pronouncements about water reuse, which were utilised in the workshops. Examples of this type of rhetoric and discourse were identified in the deliberative workshops developed in this study of social learning about water reuse and its implementation in public engagement.

Keywords: social learning, facticity, expert knowledge, public engagement

1. Social Learning, Critical Reflection and the Perception of Facticity in Deliberation on Water Reuse

In Australia, in the last decade, the consideration by governments and publics of water reuse in the provision of rural and urban water supplies has become critical. A process of social learning, that we developed in a series of workshops designed for use in an engagement process for public consideration of water reuse, focused on public understanding of expert knowledge about water reuse and public capacity to reflect on the expertise presented to them. We wanted to instil in the public the capacity to question expertise and to consider whether the information presented by experts was an opinion and not necessarily an established fact. We assessed whether the publics in our workshops could readily question the expert information provided to them rather than readily accept such expertise. Our interest in this approach was in part instigated by the readiness of the expertise engaged by the water reuse industry to proclaim how scientific and technological understanding of the safety of water reuse was factual.

Readiness to claim the safety of water reuse as factual was evident in a controversy concerning recycled water in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. In this situation the local government did not engage the public in a robust process of social learning. The funding provisions of the federal government required the public to give their opinion on water recycling within a short timeframe, which precluded the local government from engaging the public in a social learning process on recycled water. Rather than providing the public with the opportunity for critical reflection on the scientific and technological aspects of water recycling the local government engaged the public in a marketing program designed to convince them of the worth of water recycling. This was typified by the statements of a water scientist, who was employed by the Toowoomba Council and portrayed as an expert providing the facts about recycled water, who concurred after conducting a review of the scientific literature that it was safe to reuse highly treated effluent in the water supply. There was considerable opposition in the local community towards recycled water being added to the local water supply. A local businessman joined forces with a community action group and funded this group so that it became very vocal in the local media. This group was vociferous in its rejection of the commonly accepted scientific facts (Waste Management Environment, 2012). The local community eventually voted in a referendum, to not proceed with a water recycling project employing advanced water treatment. …

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