Ethics and Practice in Science Communication
edited by Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin and Michael F. Dahlstrom
University of Chicago Press, 2018
Cloth: 978-0-226-54060-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-49781-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-49795-2
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.001.0001


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.


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.


“There is a glaring absence of scholarship on the ethics of science communication, and an urgent need for resources such as this volume that offer a critical context on ethics that is both rigorous in its depth and scope, but also accessible and useful to a diversity of readers, including scientists and communication practitioners. This book will instantly and immediately be the leading source on the ethics of science communication.”
— Matthew Nisbet, Northeastern University and editor-in-chief of "Environmental Communication"

“Ethical dimensions of science communication compose an arena vastly underserved by the extant literature. This book does a convincing job of demonstrating that ethical judgments—whether intentional or not—saturate the construction of science messages and then offers a thoughtful and readable portal into the topic. It’s about time.”
— Sharon Dunwoody, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“This book richly reminds us that every act of communication requires ethical consideration—and science communication is no exception. The authors draw out ethical principles addressing the obligations owed to readers, sources, and subjects of science communication. Detailed case studies show these principles at work in stories ranging from love drugs to genetic testing and biotechnology, to media coverage of the recovery of an Incan virgin sacrificed to the gods. The editors and authors are helping all science communicators become more reflexive about the complexities of their actions, which in turn increases the capacity for all of us to have deeper conversations about science, science communication, and society.”
— Bruce V. Lewenstein, Cornell University


Foreword / Rush Holt and Jeanne Braha

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0001
[ethical guidelines;reflexivity;science communication;professional ethics;norms]
Some ethical guidelines for science communicators are obvious, but others are not so clear-cut. Through this collection we hope to stimulate reflexive thought about the nature of the ethical choices present in particular science communication situations. Few rules apply to all cases; our social expectations (or norms) seem to undergo constant adaptation in response to each new context. Both professional communicators and practicing scientists generally consider themselves bound by ethical principles recognized within their respective professions, but these are not necessarily the same ones. Very little scholarly work looks closely at how these diverse expectations might inform ethical practice in science communication, as well as what remains largely missing from consideration. The present volume hopes to begin to address these gaps. (pages 1 - 8)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Part 1: How Ethics Matters

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0002
[speech act;advocacy;scientific authority;responsibility;trust]
One of the co-editors of this volume, Jean Goodwin, argues here that scientists making statements related to science are necessarily engaged in what some scholars call “speech acts” rather than everyday talking. A speech act is an act of speaking that actually goes beyond simply conveying information by entailing various commitments and expectations, explicit or implicit. As a simple example, any utterance beginning with “I promise” is clearly a speech act. However, the underlying commitment may not be so overt. When scientists speak from their expertise, or can reasonably be expected to be speaking from their expertise, they are (in effect) asserting that their speech has empirical support – that is, that it is grounded in scientific evidence. Goodwin lays out the various forms of speech act that are most commonly descriptive of the pronouncements of scientists. (pages 13 - 33)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0003
[ethical theory;utilitarianism;risk communication;risk assessment;social construction]
In this chapter, Paul B. Thompson explores the ethics of science-based risk communication. He introduces a very useful distinction between ethics as a plural noun indicating specific norms, standards, and expectations governing our conduct, including professional conduct, and ethics as a singular noun referring to the critical analysis of what constitutes “right actions” in particular situations. Risk analysis can be thought of as the analysis of possible events and their probabilities, although the analysis of how values influence judgments about risk presents an important alternative approach. Scholars centrally interested in the role of values are more likely to consider risk to be socially constructed. Utilitarian and Kantian ethical theories introduce other relevant distinctions, and a grammatical analysis of the way the word “risk” is actually used suggests agency is a central dimension. (pages 34 - 54)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0004
[climate change;political ideologies;strategoc versis democratic goals;advocacy;critical science literacy]
Susanna Priest (the lead editor of this volume) analyzes here the ethical challenges that come with communicating about evidence-based controversies. Communication goals can be strategic, supporting the goals of particular interests or organizations. Democratic communication, on the other hand, seeks to empower citizens with respect to making informed decisions in a democratic context. Climate change is a particularly important example because of its global importance, and implementing solutions must be a collective endeavor. However, climate issues have become politicized in a way that raises issues about whether scientists should become advocates. Audiences for climate messages are divided by political ideologies. The chapter introduces the concept of “critical science literacy” to capture the skills needed by these audiences to evaluate messages aimed at them. (pages 55 - 73)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0005
[framing;democratic engagement;persuasion;public engagement;deliberative democracy]
In this chapter, Leah Sprain examines the concept of framing and poses the question of whether messages about contentious science-based issues like climate change can be framed in ways that encourage democratic engagement. She argues that while framing is not equivalent to misleading “spin,” ethical principles for framing are needed. Some form of framing is inevitable. Frames produce messages that have particular impacts; they also serve as interpretive schemas that people use to understand the information they receive. As the emphasis within studies of public understanding of science has shifted to a more dialogic perspective, framing for deliberation comes to the fore and provides a basis for developing ethical principles and practices for framing messages about science. We need to better understand how framing for democracy can be brought about and how it can support public engagement on pressing issues. (pages 74 - 90)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Part 2: Professional Practice

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0006
[science policy;narrative;persuasion;paradigmatic pathway;entertainment]
Controversial science policy involves social values, creating communication challenges. In this contribution, Michael Dahlstrom (a co-editor of this volume) and Shirley Ho take a close look at the concept of narrative as a technique relevant to the communication of science in a policy context. The literature on narrative suggests it can have considerable persuasive impact and can enhance engagement, change attitudes and beliefs, and increase a sense of self-efficacy. However, narrative (or story-telling) is most commonly a form of entertainment not restricted by accuracy, which introduces specific ethical issues when used for science. Traditional ethical standards from either scientific research or journalism may not be adequate to fully account for the use of narrative as a persuasive tool. The use of this tool in policy contexts, which can help communicate relevant social values, offers risks as well as benefits. (pages 95 - 115)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0007
[biography;objectivity;presentation of self;Mertonian norms;virtue ethics]
Another perspective on ethical issues in science communication is provided in this contribution from Brent Ranalli, who looks on science communication as communication about persons and compares it to biography. Every social interaction involves a presentation of self to other, and scientific writing is no exception: it generally communicates that the scientist is objective and disinterested. Scientific norms, as formulated by sociologist Robert K. Merton, include universalism, disinterestedness, communalism, and skepticism. What we expect of scientists is affected by similar ideals. This chapter advocates for consideration of virtue ethics, that is, the question of what it means to be good. It notes that biography has attracted renewed scholarly interest and suggests ethical principles that can be applied to the communication of science. (pages 116 - 135)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0008
[Arthur L. Caplan;expert sources;visible scientists;news routines;bioethicists]
This study by Marjorie Kruvand explores the relationship between bioethicists and reporters. A central question raised is how journalists make use of bioethicists as sources. The number of bioethicists is small, with one man in particular (Arthur L. Caplan) very widely quoted by reporters on a range of bioethical issues. According to data analyzed here, Caplan was quoted in almost four-fifths of over 500 individual stories on bioethical issues gathered from six newspapers. Experts this prominent in the news have been characterized as “visible scientists” who make themselves available for journalistic interviews and, through the resulting stories, become highly recognizable to news consumers. To understand the dynamics involved, a closer look at the routines journalists typically follow in their work – in particular, the ways that they identify and make use of expert sources – is helpful. (pages 136 - 154)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0009
[advertising;greenwashing;environmental campaigns;marketplace advocacy;corporate social responsibility]
In this chapter, Barbara Miller Gaither and Janas Sinclair discuss and illustrate appropriate guidelines for industry environmental campaigns. Corporate advertising campaigns that tend to exaggerate corporate environmental activities have come to be known as “greenwashing.” Even when the claims made are legitimate, such campaigns are often greeted with skepticism. Audiences may find it increasingly difficult to identify which of the claims are sincere. Marketplace advocacy is often seen as a form of corporate social responsibility. However, in marketplace advocacy the goal is to protect the organization’s market position through featuring activities tied to that organization’s sources of profit. The authors of this chapter identify three key concerns related to these environmental claims: sponsor transparency, factual accuracy, and the appropriate use of appeals to values. (pages 155 - 174)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0010
[responsibility;duty;public understanding of science;dialogue;accountability]
Sarah R. Davies explores here the question of whether scientists agree they have a duty to communicate with the public. The publication in 1985 of a Royal Society report on public understanding of science is identified as a key historical moment in recognizing that responsibility. That report suggested that, for example, taxpayers have a right to know what their money is funding. More recently, the phrase “responsible conduct of research” has become increasingly prominent to cover a range of obligations. Many practical barriers exist to scientists’ engaging in public communication. Drawing on interviews from nearly 30 principal investigators, Davies points out that many scientists feel multiple other ethical obligations, such as making a contribution and being an effective mentor, that may limit the time and energy available for public communication activities. (pages 175 - 192)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Part 3: Case Studies

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0011
[responsibility;voles;backtracking;expertise;genetic determinism]
Chapter co-authors Daniel J. McKaughan and Kevin C. Elliott explore here the interpretations of research on the sexual behavior of voles, in which specific hormones such as oxytocin are implicated. Humans also produce oxytocin, and links have sometimes been made to our own moral behavior. However, comparing the behavior of voles with that of human beings is quite problematic. This discussion takes place in a context in which the expectation that scientists should provide policy guidance is seen as potentially conflicting with the expectation that scientists should remain objective. The authors introduce the concept of “backtracking” to refer to needed attempts to clarify the relationship between scientific research and value judgments. They suggest this can be accomplished by specific steps, such as acknowledging the range of interpretations that might be applied to particular scientific evidence. (pages 197 - 213)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0012
[genetic testing;23andMe;direct-to-consumer (DTC);commonplaces;metaphors]
This chapter by Lora Arduser examines the controversies embedded in direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Concerns include trust and credibility, regulation, standards, and public reception. A number of these issues are explored using the 23andMe company as a case study focus, considering such elements as the historical relationship between the company and the FDA, six key “commonplaces” uncovered in the author’s analysis of online consumer comments, and a number of metaphors (such as the idea of “reading” a genome) used by the company to communicate to its customers. Consumers did not appear interested in the same issues as regulators; rather than concern over access to expert interpretation of their data, they expressed such things as disappointment about a months-long wait for what they saw as a very general product. (pages 214 - 234)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0013
[deficit model;public engagement;biotechnology;framing;industrialization]
In this chapter, Kelly Bronson argues that characterizing those who resist agricultural biotechnology as ignorant (often known as “deficit model” thinking) has clear ethical implications. Assuming that public resistance to biotechnology stems only from misunderstanding or opposing science has the effect of framing that resistance as illogical and uninformed. Bronson’s ethnographic investigation of Canadian farmers who choose to avoid the use of biotechnology and even organize themselves to resist it suggests a different picture. The farmers Bronson studied resist not only biotechnology but also the more general industrialization of farming that seeks only maximum productivity. These farmers prefer a more decentralized approach they believe takes into account the impact of farming on communities. Defining them as holding anti-science or otherwise illegitimate views can limit their opportunities for policy engagement. (pages 235 - 252)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0014
[pragmatism;meanings-in-use;deliberative ethics;reflexivity;plant biology]
For chapter author Alain Létourneau, ethics is not only reflexive but needs to contain a dialogic or deliberative element. Drawing from philosophical pragmatism and previous research on how the word ethics has been used in the French-language Canadian press, he argues that “meanings-in-use” for both ethics and science communication can vary widely, depending on who is to be the receiver of a message and the particular social setting. To clarify and test these ideas by looking at a concrete situation, Létourneau considers the characteristics of a mission statement by a Canadian plant biology research network and posted on their website. A careful reading reveals the document’s focus on values such as sustainability rather than more specific norms or rules, as well as mention of specific activities not defined in terms of relative worth. (pages 253 - 269)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226497952.003.0015
[biopolitics;framing;Kennewick Man;Native Americans;sciencing]
Here, chapter author Cynthia-Lou Coleman explores what it means when “science” and “non-science” perspectives come into seeming conflict in public discourse. Differing worldviews come into play. In some cases, differences between “western science” and indigenous knowledge result in “scientific” perspectives being portrayed as correct while indigenous perspectives are seen as irrational. Coleman calls these latter “subjugated perspectives” in that they are readily perceived as laden with values, whereas scientific views are seen as value-free. This “objectivity” thesis also colors news reports of situations where conflicts between indigenous and scientific perspectives become visible. The story of a Peruvian “ice maiden” discovered in 1995 and exhibited in a glass freezer is used to provide context for understanding the story of Kennewick Man, a slightly more recent (1996) discovery in the U.S. (pages 270 - 290)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Afterword / Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin, and Michael F. Dahlstrom

List of Contributors