Love Canal revisited
A Hazardous Inquiry: The Rashomon Effect at Love Canal, by Allan C. Mazur. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998, 218 pp.
From August 1978 to May 1980, the nondescript industrial city of Niagara Falls, New York, named for one of the world’s great scenic wonders, acquired a perverse new identity as the site of one of the 20th century’s most highly publicized environmental disasters: Love Canal. It was the first, and in many ways the worst, example of a scenario that soon reproduced itself in many parts of the country. Toxic chemicals had leaked from an abandoned canal used as a waste dump into nearby lots and homes, whose residents seemed more than averagely afflicted by a wide variety of health problems, from miscarriages and birth defects to neurological and psychological disorders. State and federal officials tried desperately to assess the seriousness of the danger to public health, hampered by a lack of reliable scientific data and inadequately tested study protocols. Controversies soon erupted, and panicky homeowners turned to politicians, the news media, and the courts for answers that science seemed unable to deliver. The crisis ended with a combined state and federal buyout of hundreds of homes within a several-block radius of the canal and the relocation of residents at an estimated cost of $300 million.
The name Love Canal has entered the lexicon of modern environmentalism as a virtual synonym for chemical pollution caused by negligent waste management. The episode left a lasting imprint on U.S. policy in the form of the 1980 federal Superfund law, which mandated hugely expensive cleanups of hazardous waste sites around the nation. Community-based environmental activism also took root at Love Canal, following the model pioneered by the local homeowners’ association and its charismatic leader Lois Gibbs. A question left tantalizingly in the air was whether, in times of heightened public anxiety, it is possible for public health officials to undertake credible scientific inquiry, let alone whether such inquiry has the power to inform policy decisions. Much has been written on this subject, including Adeline Levine’s Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People (Lexington Books, 1982), an early sociological account of the controversy.
Why, then, do we need another book about Love Canal now, 20 years after the event burst on our national consciousness? Allan Mazur, a policy analyst at Syracuse University, answers by drawing an analogy between his book and Rashomon, the classic film by Akira Kurosawa, which has come to symbolize the irreducible ambiguity of human perceptions and relationships. In the film, the story of a rape and murder is retold four times from the viewpoints of the four principal characters: a samurai, his wife, a bandit, and a passing woodcutter. The story of Love Canal, Mazur argues, involved similar discrepancies of vision, so that what you saw depended on where you stood in the controversy. But whereas the artist Kurosawa was content to leave ambiguity unresolved, the analyst Mazur is determined to reconcile his conflicting accounts so as to offer readers something akin to objective truth. No unbiased reading was possible, he implies, as long as the principals in the Love Canal drama were propagating their interest-driven accounts of what had happened and who was to blame. Now, at a remove of 20 years, Mazur is confident that his disinterested academic’s eye, liberated from “strong favoritism,” will allow us to glimpse a reality that could not previously be seen.
In pursuing the truth, Mazur imitates Kurosawa’s narrative strategy, but the resemblance turns out to be skin-deep. The book begins with six accounts of the events from 1978 to 1980, representing the viewpoints of the Hooker Chemical Company (the polluter); the Niagara Falls School Board (negligent purchaser or Hooker’s innocent dupe); two groups of homeowners who were compensated and relocated on different dates; the New York State Department of Health; and Michael Brown, the hometown reporter who broke the story and later wrote a bestseller about it. In the second part, Mazur, like Kurosawa’s woodcutter, emerges from behind the scenes to give us his rendition of the events. But whereas the woodcutter was just one more voice in Rashomon, Mazur claims something closer to 20/20 hindsight. Evaluating in turn the news coverage, the financial settlements, and the scientific evidence, he even-handedly declares that there is enough blame to go around among all the parties involved. His impatience with Lois Gibbs, however, is palpable, and he holds the news media responsible for succumbing too easily to her story, which he finds least credible despite its later canonical status.
Lost in a time warp
At 218 pages plus a brief appendix, Mazur’s version of the Love Canal story is refreshingly brief. This is all to the good, because it is hard to read this book without feeling that one is caught in a time warp. The analytic resources that the book deploys seem almost as dated as the events themselves. For instance, the list of references, drawing heavily on the author’s own prior work, shows very little awareness of the fact that scientific controversies have emerged over the past 20 years as a major focal point for research in science and technology studies and in work on risk. In Mazur’s world, therefore, all is still as innocently black and white as it seemed to be in the 1960s: Either a chemical has caused a disease or it has not; either experts are doing good science or they are not; either people are unbiased or they are interested.
In such a world, disagreements occur because people with interests distort or manipulate the facts to suit their convenience. Reason, common sense, and good science would ordinarily carry the day were it not for political activists such as Lois Gibbs who muddy the waters with their “gratuitous generation of fear and venomous refusal to communicate civilly.” Powerful news organizations are unduly swayed by “articulate and sympathetic private citizens, often photogenic homemakers, who are fearful about contamination that threatens or has damaged their families.”
There are hints here and there that the author is aware of greater complexity beneath the surface, but his failure to acknowledge nearly two decades of social science research prevents him from achieving a deeper understanding. In his commitment to some idealized vision of “good science,” for example, Mazur loses sight of the fact that standards for judging science are often in flux and may be contested even within the scientific community. Against the evidence of a mass of work on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, he asserts that there are clear and unambiguous standards of goodness governing such issues as the use of controls, the design of population studies, the conduct of surveys, and the statistical interpretation of results. Not surprisingly, Mazur concludes that the homeowners’ most effective scientific ally, Dr. Beverly Paigen, failed to meet the applicable standards. The data-collecting efforts of nonexpert “homemakers,” such as Gibbs, are dismissed with even less ceremony.
None of this is very helpful in explaining the profoundly unsettling questions about trust and credibility that Love Canal helped bring to the forefront of public awareness. A firm grasp of constructivist ideas about knowledge creation would have helped, but Mazur evidently knows only a straw-man version of social construction that strips it of any analytic utility. Instead of using constructivism as a tool for understanding how knowledge and belief systems attain robustness, Mazur dismisses this analytic approach as mindlessly relativistic. There is an unlovely smugness in his assertion that constructivists would “take it for granted that the Indians’ account [of the Battle of Little Big Horn] is no more or less valid than the army’s account.” He tilts again at imaginary windmills a page later, writing that “Few things can be proved absolutely to everyone’s satisfaction. There is a possibility that we are all figments of a butterfly’s wing; I can’t disprove it, but I don’t care.”
One could read Mazur’s accounts of the parties’ positions in the Love Canal debate as an attempt at social history, but here again one would be disappointed. The presentation draws largely on a limited number of sources, usually in the form of first-person narratives or interviews; and even these are not always adequately referenced, as in the case of the 1978 source from which most of Lois Gibbs’s story is drawn. The effort to provide multiple perspectives on the same events often leads to unnecessary, almost verbatim repetition, as with a statement by Health Commissioner David Axelrod that is quoted on p. 98 and again on p. 169. The book will remain a useful (though not perhaps totally reliable) compendium of things people said during the controversy. There are occasional wonderful touches, as when Gibbs describes the homeowners’ appropriation of expert status at a 1979 meeting with Axelrod. All the residents who attended “wore blue ribbons symbolic of Axelrod’s secret expert panel”; Paigen’s said that she was an expert on “useless housewives’ data.” These are the ingredients with which a gripping history may someday be fashioned by a storyteller with a different agenda.
The book’s inspiration, one has to conclude, is ultimately more forensic than academic. Unlike Kurosawa’s all-too-human actors, Mazur’s institutional participants have the character of parties to a staged lawsuit, offering their briefs to the court of reconciled accounts. Mazur himself seems to relish the role of judge, able to cast a cold eye on others’ heated accounts and to sort fact from fancy. But common-law courts have always been reluctant to do their fact-finding on the basis of records that have grown too old. People forget, move away, or die, as indeed did happen in the case of David Axelrod, a remarkable public servant whom Mazur aptly characterizes as the tragic hero of Love Canal. Documents disappear. New narratives intervene, adding confusion to an already-cacophonous story. In a court of law, a rejudging of responsibility for Love Canal would have been barred by a statute of limitations. History, to be sure, admits no such restriction, but Mazur, alas, is no historian.
Finally, it is interesting to observe that recent policymaking bodies have been, if anything, more charitable toward citizen perceptions and participation than the author of this book. In 1997, for example, the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management recommended that risk decisions should engage stakeholders at every stage of the proceedings. Similar recommendations have come from committees of the National Research Council. Impersonal policymaking bodies, it appears, can learn from experience. Is it unreasonable to expect more from academic social scientists, who have, after all, more leisure to reflect on what gives human lives meaning?
Sheila Jasanoff is professor of law and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.