Last night, Matt Nisbet posted a section from the first draft of a new book chapter he's working on. In this particular chapter, he says he's trying to "lay out a detailed ethical framework" for science communications. At least in theory, that's an interesting concept. Are there ethical responsibilities involved in communicating science?
The material that Matt self-quotes is a bit light when it comes to explaining just why we should think there are ethical responsibilities involved in science communication. About the closest he comes is this brief passage:
Surveys indicate that Americans strongly believe in the promise of science to improve life, deeply admire scientists, and hold science in higher esteem than almost any other institution. Scientists therefore enjoy tremendous communication capital...
I don't have the philosophical background or ethical expertise of some ScienceBloggers, but that certainly doesn't strike me as the worst reason to think that science communication involves certain ethical obligations. Science is a critical part of modern life. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that our entire current standard of living depends on science. Despite this, relatively few people have more than the most basic understanding of science (if that). I think that both the public's trust of scientists and the public's dependence on science entail some ethical responsibilities. If nothing else, it's important to make sure that the trust is not abused.
Let's take a look at what ethical responsibilities Matt thinks we have as scientists and communicators of science. He identifies four "ethical imperatives":
- dialogue should be a focus of science communication efforts, rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approaches.
- scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action
- accuracy is a third ethical imperative
- avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains
Nisbet elected to simply cut and paste the introduction to his ethics chapter, and his introduction does not actually present any reasons that any of those items should be considered to be some sort of "ethical imperative". I can only hope that the full version of this book chapter contains more that simply the bald assertion that those four points are, in fact, the ethical way to proceed. It's possible - at least in theory - that my opinion will change after I hear Nisbet's justifications for these points, but as of now I don't think all of the points are correct.
Before I go on, I should point out that it hasn't escaped my attention that there seems to be just a bit of a correlation between Nisbet's asserted "ethical imperatives" and the positions he's advocated when he's argued that various people and groups are communicating poorly. My disagreement with some of the "ethical" positions that he's laid out does not stem from a suspicion that the his new focus on the "ethics" of communication is at least in part an attempt to frame some of his opponents as not merely being wrong, but actually bad. It stems purely from my opinion of the merits of his positions.
Let me look at the positions one at a time:
I believe that it's a good idea to engage in dialogue as much as possible, but I'm not sure why this would be an ethical imperative. Of course, it's difficult for me to be sure about this, since it's not entirely clear what Matt thinks "dialogue" actually entails.
If "dialogue" can come about simply through listening and responding to the questions that people have about scientific issues, I think there is an ethical responsibility. In cases where scientific findings will potentially have an impact on people's day to day lives, I think that a basic respect for people's right to be involved in deciding how to address concerns that affect them demands that scientists do as much as possible to ensure that people have the best possible understanding about what's happening. I'm just not sure that's really dialogue.
If "dialogue" consists of debating science facts with non-scientists, or responding to every assertion that scientists are completely wrong about the underlying science, then I do not see any sort of ethical imperative. It's important to be clear about what we know and what we don't, and we should make sure that we're clear about cases where there are legitimate differences of opinion. In cases where the science is clear, I do not see how we're ethically obligated to sit down and calmly discuss the matter with people who insist that the science is not clear.
Values versus Facts:
This is a case where I agree with Nisbet. I believe that scientists and communicators of science have a duty to remember that science alone cannot tell us what we should do. It may, for example, be a fact that our actions are causing the temperature of the planet to rise. It may also be a fact that the rise in temperatures will cause some areas of the planet to become much less hospitable than they already are. Taken together, these two facts only require us to take action if we accept the values judgement that these consequences are bad, and that we have a responsibility to avoid them if we possibly can.
The thing is, I don't think this is an area where the advocates for good science use in policy have been having problems. As I've said before, I think that a great deal of the misuse of science that's gone on in public policy in the recent past has been inspired by people's desire to evade the values question entirely. If cigarettes do not cause disease, there's no need to even discuss regulation. If we're not warming the planet, we don't need to think about whether we should stop doing things that cause this.
This one's hard to argue against. I think that scientists do have an ethical responsibility to be as accurate as possible when communicating science to the public. But I think it's also important to make sure that we don't confuse "accuracy" with "precision". Presenting every little nuance in every aspect of every question is a sure way to confuse people.
Avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains:
Nisbet's final "ethical imperative" is the one I've got the largest problem with - particularly since he goes on in the same post to use his new "ethical" frame to stereotype and denigrate the "New Atheists".
We certainly should not go out of our way to be mean to people for whatever reason, but it's not always going to be possible to completely avoid it. Speaking purely from the perspective of science, it is absolutely absurd to argue that the planet we live on is 10,000 years old. We may not have pinned the origin of the Earth down to the second, but we're not off by the five orders of magnitude that the 10k belief would suggest. I have no intention of walking into someone's church and yelling "you're wrong" at the top of my lungs, but when someone goes to the school board to demand that the 10k belief be taught or somehow respected in science classes, I am under no ethical obligation to show any particular respect to that view, even though those who hold it will likely see my objections as an attack on their beliefs (and by extension on their group).
I'm certainly don't see how I'm ethically obligated to refrain from laughing at geocentrists.
When it comes to "partisan or electoral gains", I am in complete disagreement with Matt. I think that it is extremely important to do everything possible to ensure that science is used well in policy making. In cases where politicians or political parties demonstrate a disregard for science, I think it's important to oppose them. This is true regardless of what party that politician belongs to.
Politicians who are unwilling to even recognize the existence of a firm scientific consensus on issues that have the potential to impact every human being on the planet are unfit to serve. Not only do I not have an ethical obligation to refrain from saying this, I believe I have an ethical obligation to say it.
Nisbet clearly posted his latest efforts in an attempt to spark some discussion. It will be interesting to see what (if any) response he has. If nothing else, it will demonstrate his own level of ethical commitment to the principle of discourse.