, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 225-243

Post-Secondary Students’ Relationship to People They Consider to Be Scientific Experts

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This article is situated in contemporary debates about the ways to achieve a scientific literacy that encourages a greater lay participation in public debates and political decision making. Drawing on the notion of “relationship to scientific experts” (in French, “rapport aux experts scientifiques”), I explore the ways in which a group of 3 Quebec post-secondary students describe the relationships they hold toward people whom they consider to be scientific experts, as revealed during a project in which they investigated the controversy surrounding cellular telephone use. To this end, I scrutinize how the members of the group go about describing scientific experts and picture a prospective face-to-face discussion with a scientific expert. The data come from a case study (conducted over a 15-week period). The findings show that the group maintains a relationship of intimidation by scientific experts, in which the latter are depicted in terms of their knowledge and qualifications. Accordingly, the group was overawed not only by the accumulation of knowledge held and produced by scientific experts but also by the latter’s research experience and the high social recognition they occasionally enjoyed. Similarly, the group describes a prospective face-to-face discussion with a doctor or a researcher in terms of an impersonal, intimidating encounter during which its members’ learning and comprehension in relation to the controversy are assumed to be unequal to the task. The implications of the findings for future research are discussed.