Summary: Lay people and the production of knowledge

The role of lay people in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. The Public Education Model (PEM), Public Debate Model (PDM) and Co-production of knowledge model


Modern life experiences rapid technological change. Public – those without specialist knowledge – mistrust science because academics and scientists have been unable to see the negative consequences of scientific advancement. For example, automation and the impact on jobs. Science can be perceived as a public bad as opposed to a public good. The way to solve this mistrust is minimise the gap between specialists and non-specialists, increasing their involvement. There are 3 models which suggest ways to do this

Public education model (PEM)


1: Scientific knowledge is the opposite of lay knowledge and can only be dominant when lay knowledge is totally eradicated. Scientists must teach the public everything.

2: Ties between public and science are indirect. Science is its own institution and must be protected from contamination from public (so no knowledge production from or between the public). Not autonomous however, as science represents citizen will, and firms complying with consumer demands.

3: Technoscience is progress and provided by authorities to increase political representation and provided by firms for economic competitiveness.

4: A crucial part of the model is trust. The only antidote to mis-trust is increased education and informative actions. Mistrust manifests through scientific uncertainty and/or unintended effects on the public.

5: Scientists calculate risks objectively; lay people are more likely to view risk subjectively. For example, a nuclear plant being built near their home is more likely to be perceived as a big risk by them than to scientists. Scientists dispel subjectivity of the public through education, and public make decisions based on objective appraisal, knowingly accepting risks.

6: The legitimacy of political decisions come from representatives that speak in the name of citizens (e.g. goal setting), and the predicted outcomes and effects determined by scientific, objective knowledge. Both much be approved by all citizens. The consultation (what do we do) and the explanation (what can we do), which comes from scientists.

Overall: Based on opposition between scientific and popular knowledge. No discussion is possible before public are fully educated. Failure comes when the underlying assumptions of science are invalidated and public mis-trust becomes founded.

Public debate model (PDM)


1: Like PEM science has a universal value but unlike PEM it admits it is incomplete. It is abstract and deficient in some areas. Real life is not a laboratory, which is recognised so scientific results may not be exactly replicated. The world is much more complex and richer. Sometimes ‘natives’ (those with lay knowledge) know more than scientists. Louis Agasszis did not realise drop-stones came from glaciers, but shepherds did. Scientists are limited by the narrowness of their speciality and powerless when addressing economic or ethical issues.

2: The shortcoming of laboratories means discussion can enrich situations. Contrasts with PEM model where disagreement is a sign that scientific education is needed for the ‘immature’ lay people. A differentiated public is more beneficial than an undifferentiated one with contrasting competencies and views. Methods of debate include: Inquiries – different actors expressing themselves. Focus groups – A collective dynamic between authorities and firms with conflicting views and interests. Many others specific to countries but all assess political, cultural, and ethical implications to frame and limit researcher’s freedom.

3: Boundaries between specialists and non-specialists are blurred. This creates divisions in the scientific community meaning agreements are reached through compromise and are mutually-enriching.

4: A loss of confidence in PEM can be explained as an expression of opinion previously unspoken in the PDM. Expression helps avoid crises.

5: IN PEM the risk to technoscience is a lack of public education. The PDM suggests the risk is a loss of identity and the refusal to acknowledge an individual’s knowledge. Therefore, the solution is giving the non-specialists a chance to speak to prompt them to accept decisions made by science.

6: A public forum transforms public and private decision making. Forces acknowledgement of controversial local situations and a right of access to information. Thus, decision legitimacy relies on open debate. The issues are who to include in the debate, who represents who being a permanent issue as opposed to the question of scientist’s monopoly over speech (as in PEM).

Overall: More of a relationship between scientists and the lay people. Distinguished by their level of knowledge and their experiences enhance the inhuman knowledge of scientists.

Co-production of knowledge model


1: Specialists and non-specialists work closely together in knowledge production. Constant tension between production of standardised and universal knowledge and between production of knowledge considering singular complexities of local situations.

2: No differentiated or undifferentiated public but one concerned group. For example, patients with a rare condition share an identity distinguishing them from other humans. Sometimes these groups have a dominant role in producing knowledge when ignored by the scientists. E.g. with specialist medical conditions, those groups are the patients and specialists. Still, laboratories are important for equipment and skills and funds are concentrated.

3: There can be collective learning as different knowledge is mutually enriching. Laboratory knowledge is just as valuable but framed and fed by actions of lay people.

4: There is no trust or mistrust between specialists and non-specialists as they are directly involved with producing knowledge, they have new recognition and a social status as opposed to being a subject or external reality.

5: The model relies on concerned groups getting recognition for their actions and investment or through the construction of a new identity (presumably if it concerns the group it would be more favourable).  

Overall: This model has no dividing line between scientists and non-specialists, unlike the PEM and PDM. By actively involving lay people in the creating of knowledge concerning them it overcomes these limits of the laboratory in some cases, and the pollution with non-specialist knowledge in others (as there are no non-specialists). It is particularly used in defence by minorities, such as those with genetic diseases.


Callon, M., 1999. The role of lay people in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. Science, Technology and Society4(1), pp.81-94. (Not-open access)

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