A Reevaluation of Cancer Incidence Near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: The Collision of Evidence and Assumptions

Ethics and Environmental Health | Mini-Monograph
Objectivity and Ethics in Environmental Health Science
Steve Wing
Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
During the past several decades, philosophers of science and scientists themselves have become
increasingly aware of the complex ways in which scientific knowledge is shaped by its social con-
text. This awareness has called into question traditional notions of objectivity. Working scientists 
need an understanding of their own practice that avoids the naïve myth that science can become
objective by avoiding social influences as well as the reductionist view that its content is determined
simply by economic interests. A nuanced perspective on this process can improve research ethics
and increase the capacity of science to contribute to equitable public policy, especially in areas such
as environmental and occupational health, which have direct implications for profits, regulation,
legal responsibility, and social justice. I discuss research into health effects of the 1979 accident at
Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, as an example of how scientific explana-
tions are shaped by social concepts, norms, and preconceptions. I describe how a scientific practice
that developed under the influence of medical and nuclear physics interacted with observations
made by exposed community members to affect research questions, the interpretation of evidence,
inferences about biological mechanisms in disease causation, and the use of evidence in litigation.
By considering the history and philosophy of their disciplines, practicing researchers can increase
the rigor, objectivity, and social responsibility of environmental health science. Keywords: cancer,
chance, dose reconstruction, environmental justice, epidemiology, ionizing radiation, research
ethics, significance testing, Three Mile Island. Environ Health Perspect 111:1809–1818 (2003).
doi:10.1289/ehp.6200 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 19 June 2003]