June 2003


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Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 2 Jun 2003 00:31:44 -0700
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New York Times
June 2, 2003

Dorothy Nelkin, 69, Expert on Society and Science, Dies

Dorothy Nelkin, a New York University sociologist who chronicled the
uneasy relationship between science and society, died on Wednesday at
her home in Manhattan. She was 69.

The cause was cancer, the university said.

Professor Nelkin, a prolific author who began her research at Cornell
in 1963, was a close observer of science and how it is perceived -
and, often, misperceived - by the public.

As a practical matter, that often involved giving warnings about the
potential dangers posed by scientific advances that proceed unchecked
by careful discussion of their implications. In an interview last
year, she said it was hardly surprising that many nonscientists were
unnerved by the commercialization of the human body, as scientists
seek patents for genes and tissues.

"If you are looking at the public image of the mad scientist or the
scientist out of control," she said, "the issue of patenting has
aroused a lot of concerns. The public concern doesn't just come out
of space. It comes out of real things that are happening."

But Professor Nelkin, whose husband of 50 years, Mark Nelkin, is a
physicist, was no enemy of science. Although her academic background
was in the humanities and the social sciences, she was generally
comfortable in the world of science, especially biology. Still, she
kept her intellectual distance, believing that lay writers often had
a tendency to lionize science.

"She always saw science in relationship to society, and she never
went native," said Prof. Troy Duster, a sociologist at N.Y.U.

Dorothy Wolfers Nelkin was born on July 30, 1933, in Boston and
raised in Brookline, Mass. She earned her bachelor's degree at
Cornell, where she met her husband. In addition to Mr. Nelkin, she is
survived by a daughter, Lisa Nelkin of Baltimore; a sister, Nancy
Wolfers of London; and a granddaughter.

Although she never earned more than a bachelor's degree in philosophy
from Cornell, Professor Nelkin rose to hold one of N.Y.U.'s highest
ranks, university professor.

She wrote or co-wrote 26 books, including "Selling Science: How the
Press Covers Science and Technology," "The DNA Mystique: The Gene as
a Cultural Icon" and "Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the
Biotechnology Age." She also served as an adviser to the federal
government's Human Genome Project. She was awarded a Guggenheim
Fellowship in 1983.

Much of her work focused on the friction between science and
technology and the public. In the early years, she might have looked
at how the location for a nuclear plant was chosen or workers'
attitudes toward their safety. Over the past decade, though, her
focus narrowed on DNA breakthroughs and their effect on the public.
She recently began exploring the aesthetic of DNA, and its increasing
depiction in art and popular culture.

The goal, colleagues said, was to lend perspective to a public
alternately smitten and scared by scientific advances.

Professor Nelkin believed that the science would be unable to live up
to the hopes floated by its promoters, many of whom stood to make a
lot of money.

She worried, too, about the civil liberties issues raised by efforts
to amass databases of people's DNA for crime-fighting purposes. And
she was a firm skeptic about efforts to link behavior, especially
criminal behavior, to heredity.

"By making social factors irrelevant," she wrote, "genetic
explanations of crime provide convenient excuses for those seeking to
dismantle the welfare state."