Ethics and the Public Understanding of Science

Saturday June 14, 2008

I’m currently reading a book of essays on the subject of neuroethics for a review that I’ll be writing for Metapsychology Online. Without wanting to anticipate the content of the review, which will be going online some time in August (once I’ve moved house – about which more anon – and by which time I’ll be sitting in a field listening to the sublime Leonard Cohen playing at the Big Chill festival…) I wanted to write about one small but persistent concern of the papers gathered together in the book, and that is the concern with the public understanding of science.

The idea of public understanding of science is one that is the subject of increasing attention, and for good reason: more than ever before, we live in a world in which scientific advances are demanding renewed ethical reflection, and the wider an understanding of science there can be, the more informed public debate can be. So I am all for the public understanding of science. It seems something the importance of which should not be underestimated.

The web-page of the Charles Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science, a post currently held by Richard Dawkins, provides the following uplifting view of what such an understanding might be able to do:

The goal is for the public to appreciate the order and beauty of the abstract and natural worlds which is there, hidden, layer-upon-layer. To share the excitement and awe that scientists feel when confronting the greatest of riddles. To have empathy for the scientists who are humbled by the grandeur of it all.

A common trope in discussions of the public understanding of the sciences is the idea that the public are uninformed or otherwise ignorant, and that better dissemination of information – either through an improved education system, through greater efforts on the part of scientists, through increased responsibility in what is no often doubt deeply shoddy media reporting in relation to the sciences, or through (although this is rarely said directly) a bit more effort on the part of the general public – would solve the problem. The argument is simple: the public fear science because of ignorance; and that this fear can be driven out by greater understanding. This is echoed in the volume I am reading. ‘Many’, one contributor in the book writes, ‘are the uniformed or the mal-informed; many are scared.’ The fear, we are to infer, is a result of misinformation, and nothing else.

And yet, what this view of the public understanding of science leaves out, very frequently, is an appreciation of the broader political and ethical issues that are involved in scientific research. It takes, that is to say, scientific research as a good in itself, and the problem is considered to be only that of communication. Yet I’m not sure if this is really a sustainable view. There are deeper structural problems here that raise serious ethical questions, questions that are often ignored by public champions of science. Take, for example, president George W. Bush’s announcement of increased funding for scientific research in 2002. As reported in the New York Times, a large proportion of this money was funneled towards defence-related projects. More recently, in 2005 the Guardian newspaper reported that a third of UK public spending in science was funded by the Ministry of Defence (see the link here). Indeed, for scientists working in some fields – robotics, for example – it is hard to find projects that are not directly or indirectly related to defence interests. Whilst we should indeed celebrate the “excitement and awe that scientists feel when confronting the greatest of riddles” – and how I wish that this was the main thrust of scientific endeavour in the world – we should also address the uncomfortable truth that a serious proportion of the research that is carried out in our universities and our laboratories is not about this excitement and this awe, but is about working on specific problems relating to specific, and frequently questionable, defence interests. And whilst there may or may not be legitimate concerns with defence, at the very least it would be profoundly naive to consider the defence industry as one that is straightforwardly concerned with the greater welfare of humankind. There are questions here that it is right and proper to ask.

Even if we leave to one side these defence interests, there are many other areas of research which raise similarly troubling questions. Given the range of commercial interests that lie behind scientific research, we cannot assume that this research is motivated by benevolence or a desire for the greater welfare of all; and in an age of ever closer relationships between university science departments and these commercial interests, there are many questions that should be a part of public discourse, but that frequently are not.

The advocates of the public understanding of science are frequently silent on these matters. This silence does nothing to help their avowed aim of increasing the public’s understanding and appreciation of the sciences. Being uninformed or mal-informed may indeed give rise to irrational fears, and these fears can certainly be dispelled by an improvement in communication. Yet there are other more rational fears, fears that are rooted not in ignorance, but in a cooler appreciation of the reality of how scientific research actually works, both socially and economically. To address these fears, the scientific community need to do more than simply put their case better to an ignorant public. They need to engage more deeply with hard political and ethical questions about the motivations and interests that lie behind the research with which they are involved; and they need to address some of the deeper structural problems that arise as a result of these motivations and interests.

I am, as I have said, all for the public understanding of science. But if we are genuinely interested in such understanding, then we cannot leave out these difficult questions about the uses to which our research and our public money is ultimately being put.

See also: Scientists for Global Responsibility.

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#1 · rr

14 June 2008

Great post.

When I was formerly a journalist the general quality of science reporting was one of my hobbyhorses. It was intensely annoying to listen to someone with the reputation of, say, John Humphries say he didn’t understand science stories. It seemed almost to be a macho point of principle that science was “difficult”. Imagine a news presenter saying anything similar about economics. This culture seemed to present an excuse for failing adequately to address science stories, particularly since they often do not fall into the simplistic dualistic structure so often imposed on political narratives.

Your point about motivations and interests that lie behind research is also applicable to private funding of research. New paper produced finding bacteria x added to yoghurts are good for the gut but bacteria y less so? You might not be astonished to learn that the grant for the research was given by the company which produces the yoghurt product containing bacteria x (as opposed to bacteria y which is used by a rival company). Here again though I see a failure in the media since the research will often be reported without citing the funding source.

#2 · Lea

14 June 2008

To expand a little on IT’s point, it’s not just defense (American spelling, sorry ;) economics that threatens the integrity and value of science. And it’s not just yogurt, there are even more frightening implications from “scientists” promoting use of antipsychotic medication in children. (

During roughly this same period of time that these physician-researchers were accepting and not reporting such payments, there was a 40-fold increase in diagnosis of bipolar disorder among children. (

Such payments are part of the “hundreds of millions spent in research and development per new drug” that the pharmaceutical companies use to justify any number of abuses of the market system. It amounts to buying science for marketing purposes, and I can only hope that the exposure of what these “scientists” have done has sent a shudder up the spines of every physician-researcher in the country, enough to provoke some consideration of the consequences of their relationships with their funding sources beyond the Volvo S80 or beachfront condo they’ve had their eye on.

And it just blows me away that the funding sources aren’t already required to report to the IRS how much money they’ve given anyone. If I do $300 worth of consulting work for a healthcare company, I and the company are required to report it to the IRS. How is there even a loophole, and why should the minimum that has to be reported be $500, rather than every penny like the rest of us?

Terrific post. Very timely on this side of the pond. Thank you.

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