Debating the legitimacy of a contested environmental illness: a case study of multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS)

Authors


Address for correspondence: Tarryn Phillips, Anthropology and Sociology Group, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia
e-mail:tarryn@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Abstract

More than 20 years after it was first identified, the anomalous condition, multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), remains immersed in controversy, with a continuing debate over its causation being played out in the medico-scientific community and in the courts. This article examines why sceptical and supportive experts disagree over the condition’s legitimacy as an organic condition. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Perth, Western Australia, the author scrutinises the decision-making practices of 16 experts (eight sceptical and eight supportive of a chemical explanation). Both groups were found to use evidence-based, inductive reasoning. However, sceptical experts tended to use a different set of evidence requirements, exhibited more faith in the efficiency of the current biomedical paradigm regarding toxicity and were less likely to acknowledge uncertainty in their field. All the experts recognised a spectrum of beliefs about the causal mechanisms of MCS. However, when they were engaged in litigation as expert witnesses due to their supportive or sceptical tendency, the oppositional legal system polarised their opinions and exacerbated the perceived divide between them. Ultimately, the adversarial medico-legal process inhibits genuine dialogue between some of the key players in the MCS debate, thus impeding understanding and consensus about the condition.

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