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."