Ethics and Practice in Science Communication

Ethics and Practice in Science Communication

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From climate to vaccination, stem-cell research to evolution, scientific work is often the subject of public controversies in which scientists and science communicators find themselves enmeshed. Especially with such hot-button topics, science communication plays vital roles. Gathering together the work of a multidisciplinary, international collection of scholars, the editors of Ethics and Practice in Science Communication present an enlightening dialogue involving these communities, one that articulates the often differing objectives and ethical responsibilities communicators face in bringing a range of scientific knowledge to the wider world.

In three sections—how ethics matters, professional practice, and case studies—contributors to this volume explore the many complex questions surrounding the communication of scientific results to nonscientists. Has the science been shared clearly and accurately? Have questions of risk, uncertainty, and appropriate representation been adequately addressed? And, most fundamentally, what is the purpose of communicating science to the public: Is it to inform and empower? Or to persuade—to influence behavior and policy? By inspiring scientists and science communicators alike to think more deeply about their work, this book reaffirms that the integrity of the communication of science is vital to a healthy relationship between science and society today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226497952
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/07/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 730 KB

About the Author

Susanna Priest has been a faculty member at a number of North American universities and currently serves as editor-in-chief of Science Communication: Linking Theory and Practice. Her most recent book is Communicating Climate Change: The Path Forward. Jean Goodwin is the SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Communication at North Carolina State University. Michael F. Dahlstrom is associate professor in and associate director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.

Read an Excerpt


Effective Because Ethical: Speech Act Theory as a Framework for Scientists' Communication


Whenever we open our mouths, pick up a pen, or flip up the laptop to start typing, we draw on assumptions about how communication works. These assumptions guide us as we try to figure out what we are going to say and how we are going to say it. Although they usually aren't made explicit, worked out systematically, or grounded in evidence beyond personal experience, these assumptions could be thought of as our personal "models" or "theories" of communication.

The English language has one such theory built into its very vocabulary. Consider phrases like put ideas into words; pack more thought into fewer words; thought content; get an idea across; convey ideas; make sure the meaning comes through; get meaning out of words; extract meaning. These and other ordinary ways of talking about communication reflect what has been called the "conduit" (Reddy, 1979) or "transmission" model of communication. This model invites us to think of communication as primarily information transfer. A communicator is imagined to be packing an idea-object into a suitable linguistic container and sending the package through an appropriate medium (conduit) to the receiver, who then is supposed to unpack the container and add the idea-object to his mental store. This view has been elaborated in explicit communication theory, most famously in Shannon and Weaver's early transmission model (see Shannon & Weaver, 1949). But it is more widespread as an implicit mental model or folk theory. In particular, the conduit model of communication in general becomes the infamous deficit model when applied to the communication of science: the constantly reemerging, generally unstated assumption that the main task facing a scientist communicating with a nonexpert audience is to put her knowledge into understandable and interesting words in order to fill an audience's mental void.

As noted in the introduction, the failings of the deficit model of science communication are many and long understood. Of particular interest to readers of this volume, the deficit model follows its parent conduit model in being ethically impoverished. Both models imply that the communicator has only the limited ethical responsibility of making sure that the transmission system works. She is responsible for choosing packaging that will make it through the conduit and be frustration-free for the audience to open. We might summarize this by saying that under conduit/deficit assumptions, a scientist is communicating ethically if she is communicating effectively. Beyond this core duty to be an effective transmitter, she has no particular responsibilities to receivers, who are imagined in this approach to play only a passive role.

But is this all a scientist is responsible for? Wynne's classic case study (1989) showed how real audiences react when they are treated as empty-headed unpackers. Scientists who communicated about the dangers of Chernobyl fallout in the Lakes region of Great Britain succeeded mostly in generating distrust among affected sheep farmers because of failures of respect. The scientists didn't try to find out what the farmers knew about the locale, didn't consult farmers about how plans would impact their interests and practices, and didn't consider the troubled history of prior interactions between scientists and farmers. "Distrust" and "disrespect": these are ethically freighted words. Their presence reveals that there are ethical dimensions to science communication that go beyond the assumptions of the deficit model.

Many have called for replacing communication based on deficit model assumptions with approaches that emphasize dialogue or engagement between scientists and nonexpert audiences. While the ideals expressed in such calls are legitimate, one difficulty is that "dialogue" and "engagement" do not provide alternatives to the straightforward, intuitively compelling vision that the conduit model offers. "Dialoguing" just isn't as vivid as packing and unpacking, and ordinary English doesn't give us many metaphors for "engagement." So even scientists and science communication professionals who aim higher tend to find deficit model assumptions sneaking back unrecognized into their theories and practices (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010; Davies, 2008; Wynne, 2006).

In order to stop reinventing the deficit model and to realize the promise of engagement, we need to cultivate a different set of assumptions — a different folk theory of communication. This alternative viewpoint needs to respect the audience's active role in communication; needs to allow for the development of a richer communication ethics; needs to fulfill the hopes expressed in talk of dialogue and engagement; and needs to be grounded in ordinary intuitions about how communication works. In the remainder of this chapter, I sketch how a perhaps surprising candidate — the philosophical theory of speech acts — can fulfill these four goals. A "speech act" is communication that in itself accomplishes a specific action, such as making a promise or lodging a complaint. As we will see, thinking of science communication as taking place through speech acts encourages us to pay attention to the ethics of communication.

In the following section, I summarize an interdisciplinary body of scholarship that draws inspiration from philosopher Paul Grice's original work, and show how speech act theory provides a general conception of communication that emphasizes the communicator's ethical responsibilities toward an active audience. I next demonstrate the power of speech act theory by using it to provide accounts of four quite different speech acts of special relevance to scientists contributing to public discussions: exercising authority, reporting, advising, and advocating. I close with a brief summary of the progress made, and a comparison of the speech act approach with the deficit model. In particular, I will wrap up by justifying my title: in the reverse of the view implicit in the deficit model, in the speech act approach science communication is only effective because it is ethical.

Speech Act Theory

To develop an alternative conception of communication, a good place to start is by considering what would happen if we allotted the receiver in the conduit model — that is, the audience — a more active role in the communication process. The conduit model assigns the audience the task of unpacking the message and adding it to their mental storehouse. But now let's give audience members some power: let's assume they are autonomous (they think and decide for themselves, relatively independent of outside influences) agents (they can make choices and do things that affect the world). Autonomous agency in the conduit model will become most apparent when the audience acts "badly" and interrupts the smooth transmission of information. For example: perhaps the audience refuses delivery of the message, or, on receipt, immediately tosses it in the trash.

These are not unusual ways to treat incoming messages. We do in fact dump junk mail in the basket right by the front door, fast forward through commercials, pay no attention to the flyers on the wall, and so on. Even when we invest attention, we often reject what salespeople, politicians, and pundits say. We even resist messages from those who have our interests at heart — our doctors, family members, or colleagues — when we don't like what they are telling us.

The conduit model invites us to take the transmission mechanism as just a given, with the main job of communication to be clearing away obstructions to it. To develop a better model of how communication manages to work, even facing an audience of autonomous and perhaps recalcitrant agents, we need to strip away this "given" status. We need to ask: what reasons does an audience have for paying attention at all, and if they pay attention, for trusting the quality of the message someone else is pushing on them?

Speech act theory offers an answer to these questions. In the approach to speech act theory developed by Grice (1957, 1969), extended by Stampe (1967), and applied to public discourse by Kauffeld (1998, 2001a, 2002, 2003, 2009), communication is fundamentally an act: something a communicator does with a reasonable expectation that it will change the world in some way. Although we can use communication artifacts to change the physical world — like when we stack books to prop up a shelf — in general, communication does its work by affecting other people. These other people are presumed to be just as much agents as the communicator herself. They will only be willing to be affected by a message if they have good reasons to do so. Thus a key task facing any communicator is to provide her audience such good reasons for accepting her communication — that is, for trusting what she says. And the main way she accomplishes this is by openly taking responsibility for the quality of her message. Here is how it works.

Consider the very basic speech act of saying something. A communicator puts forward a sentence to an audience — for example, "Glucosamine pills help with the pain of knee arthritis." We assume that it's not given that the audience will trust her. After all, believing is risky for the audience: the communicator could be mistaken or even lying (maybe she's a shill for a supplement manufacturer). Perhaps the audience has already heard of a study that found glucosamine no better than a placebo. Can they be confident that the communicator has put in the time and effort to verify her statement? Is she lazy, negligent, or careless? In sum, the audience has plenty of good reasons to distrust what the communicator is saying — to resist it, to be recalcitrant.

Notice, however, that it's not just audience that may be getting into trouble. The communicator is also running a risk. In general, people are responsible for what they do intentionally. When she says something about the health benefits of glucosamine, the communicator intends the audience to believe it. She has thus made herself responsible for that belief; she is blameworthy if that belief is of poor quality, i.e., false. Furthermore, she's soliciting the audience's belief openly. If it turns out that glucosamine is ineffective, she won't be able to avoid criticism for lying or negligence; because she was open about her intention, she can't really wriggle out with excuses like "I didn't really mean it — I was just speaking offhand, mentioning something I read online somewhere — I didn't expect you to take me seriously." The fact that she is openly seeking belief thus ensures that the audience will be able to hold her responsible if what she says turns out to be wrong.

Communication thus begins to look like a lose-lose situation: both communicator and audience are running a risk that the exchange will go badly wrong. The audience risks believing something false; the communicator risks being responsible for that false belief. But the communicator's vulnerability to criticism actually opens a way out of the apparent deadlock. The audience can reason as follows: (1) The communicator knows she is running a risk when she openly tries to get us to believe what she says. If her information about glucosamine turns out to be false, we can now hold her responsible. (2) She's a reasonable person; we can presume that she wouldn't put her good name at risk like this — with us, or even with herself — unless she was confident that the risk she faces is low. She must know that that she isn't lying and hasn't cut corners in figuring out what glucosamine will do. (3) So if she's confident that the risk she faces is low, we can be confident that the risk is low for us as well.

The responsibility for the truth that the communicator has undertaken in saying something to the audience makes her vulnerable, and her open acceptance of that vulnerability gives her audience a good reason to trust what she is saying. To put it even more simply, in saying something seriously a communicator is not just transmitting information; she is transmitting information together with a personal guarantee of its truth. Her guarantee serves to alter the "social and moral order" (Kauffeld, 2001b); it changes the world just as effectively as a physical act like a hug. It creates, or at least enhances, a relationship between communicator and audience — a relationship in which the communicator is now responsible for speaking the truth, and the audience has a good reason to count on her to do so.

Saying is only the most basic among a very large set of speech acts. As we will see in more detail in the following section, a communicator's simple guarantee may not provide her audience with a good enough reason to satisfy their legitimate distrust. In such cases, the communicator will need to take on additional responsibilities to meet their additional concerns. Each such package of responsibilities constitutes a distinct speech act. Ordinary English has names for many: promising, accusing, requesting, complaining, proposing, apologizing, commanding, thanking, warning, and challenging, to mention only a few of the nearly one thousand verbs referring to things we can do with words (Verschueren, 1985). Despite this variety, the overall moral of speech act theory is simple: whenever you open your mouth to speak, you are opening a hole perfectly sized to fit a particular foot. Your audience can trust you to make sure that that foot gets nowhere near it.

It should be apparent that the fundamental view of communication put forward in this approach corrects two of the unfortunate features of the conduit model. Speech act theory positions audience members as autonomous agents in the communication process. It legitimates as reasonable their unwillingness to be passive recipients of information that's sent their way. All communication must be designed to respect the audience's right to think and decide for themselves, by providing them good reasons to trust what is being conveyed. Speech act theory also shows that communication effectiveness is grounded in communication ethics. In performing a speech act, a communicator undertakes responsibilities to her audience. She thereby sets up ethical standards for herself that she then has to meet, or else face criticism. It is precisely her vulnerability to ethical criticism that gives her audience good reason to trust her. Thus where the conduit model tells communicators to wrap their messages up in durable and attractive packaging in order to make sure they slide through the conduit with ease, speech act theory tells communicators to establish ethically sound relationships with audiences in order to make sure their messages deserve their audiences' trust.

If speech act theory provides an account of communication in general that is better than the conduit model, there is hope that it will also help us understand the communication of science in particular better than the deficit model does. In the following section, I take up four speech acts that have historically been of special relevance to scientists who want to contribute their knowledge to the public, especially in potentially controversial decision-making contexts: the acts of exercising authority, reporting, advising, and advocating. Table 1.1 offers a preliminary road map.


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Table of Contents

Rush Holt and Jeanne Braha
Introduction to this Book
Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin, and Michael F. Dahlstrom

Part 1: How Ethics Matters

1: Effective because Ethical: Speech Act Theory as a Framework for Scientists’ Communication
Jean Goodwin
2: Communicating Science-Based Information about Risk: How Ethics Can Help
Paul B. Thompson
3: Communicating Climate Change and Other Evidence-Based Controversies: Challenges to Ethics in Practice
Susanna Priest
4: Framing Science for Democratic Engagement
Leah Sprain

Part 2: Professional Practice

5: Ethical Considerations of Using Narrative to Communicate in Science Policy Contexts
Michael F. Dahlstrom and Shirley S. Ho
6: Science Communication as Communication about Persons
Brent Ranalli
7: Journalists, Expert Sources, and Ethical Issues in Science Communication
Marjorie Kruvand
8: The Ethics and Boundaries of Industry Environmental Campaigns
Barbara Miller Gaither and Janas Sinclair
9: Scientists’ Duty to Communicate: Exploring Ethics, Public Communication, and Scientific Practice
Sarah Davies

Part 3: Case Studies

10: Just the Facts or Expert Opinion? The Backtracking Approach to Socially Responsible Science Communication
Daniel J. McKaughan and Kevin C. Elliott
11: Controversy, Commonplaces, and Ethical Science Communication: The Case of Consumer Genetic Testing
Lora Arduser
12: Excluding “Anti-biotech” Activists from Canadian Agri-Food Policy Making: Ethical Implications of the Deficit Model of Science Communication
Kelly Bronson
13: Science Communication Ethics: A Reflexive View
Alain Létourneau
14: How Discourse Illuminates the Ruptures between Scientific and Cultural Rationalities
Cynthia-Lou Coleman

Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin, and Michael F. Dahlstrom

List of Contributors

Customer Reviews