Questionnaires are increasingly frequent in bioethics. They can provide information about how ethical issues are real for the parties concerned: for patients, for families, for nurses, for physicians, for research participants, for donors…

Questionnaires can counteract professional isolationism where bioethicists believe they know exactly which issues should concern people, and on the basis of this “expertise” export ethical policies without importing impressions.

Unfortunately, isolationism isn’t that easily remedied. Kevin P. Weinfurt warns that questionnaires can conceal isolationism, if responses are interpreted by bioethicists who have other points of view and other linguistic habits than the respondents.

Interpretations are easily biased to speak to issues internal to the bioethical debate. You find Weinfurt’s warnings here:

How can ethicists’ points of view bias interpretations? By asking THEIR questions as if every human housed a bioethicist experiencing the same issues. Concerning clinical trials, for example, bioethicists estimate “chance of benefit from experimental therapy.” Thus, it is natural for them to query research participants how THEY consider their chance of benefit, as if participants too perceived the situation as a decision tree with chances of disease control and risks of death.

How can ethicists’ linguistic habits bias the answers? By being so thoroughly trained in a bookish scholarly culture that they interpret people literally. If a respondent answers the question,

  • “How confident are you that the experimental therapy will control your cancer?”

by encircling 80 %, they believe that the respondent DESCRIBES his private assessment of the probability. But communication does not consist only in describing inner mental states. People DO a great number of things with words, for example, they VOICE HOPE.

When a respondent who answered 80 % afterwards was interviewed about why other people would answer 10 %, he didn’t answer in terms of divergent prognostic factors, but said:

  • “Oh, man, I feel sorry for them… They’re just not…they’re just…they’re hopeless. They have no hope left. For some reason, they’ve been beat down so bad that they can’t think positive anymore… Maybe they don’t have the same kind of support in their life that I do.”

If Weinfurt’s warnings are right, assuming that patients’ hope of recovery causes unrealistic assessments of chance of benefit may be a misconception. Patients may not make such assessments at all. It is the questionnaire that causes the illusion.

They voice their hope, that’s all.

Pär Segerdahl

In dialogue with patients