Distance between media representations and public perceptions of synthetic biology

May 24, 2016

Mirko AncillottiMedia do not generally represent the general public’s views on synthetic biology nor, regrettably, render a balanced or thoughtful picture of the field. Until now media cannot represent a starting point nor can they facilitate a public debate on synthetic biology, which would be desirable for a responsible and responsive development of the field.

In a previous post, written together with Josepine Fernow, I expressed some concerns about the way mainstream media report synthetic biology. Stories told by the journalists are often obviously adhering to the versions of their sources, mainly synthetic biologists. As a consequence, the broad majority of the reports are uncritically positive and optimistic about the field and its potentials.

In a recent article I investigated, together with researchers from The Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, whether this sort of journalistic passivity is specific to Swedish media or if this is a common trend. Well, in case some of you may wonder, the answer is that it is a common trend. Although I cannot claim that it is a global trend, it is a trend in at least 13 European countries and in the US.

But how do different audiences react to what synthetic biology does and can potentially do? Are they also as supportive and progressive as the stories told by the journalists (or, rather, recycled by the journalists)? This is what we tried to understand.

The Meeting of Young Minds is an event which was organized by the Rathenau Instituut in 2011 and 2012, where young synthetic biologists (students) met and debated with spokespersons of Dutch political youth organizations. The analysis of the event showed that positive expectations and an open attitude towards synthetic biology could certainly be found among the prospective politicians. However, concerns about the environment were expressed, as well as about the concept of designing new forms of life.

But of course, political organizations are not neutral and cannot be assumed to mirror general public views.

What happens when we turn our attention to the general public? Participants in citizens’ panels in Austria tended to focus primarily on the challenges and risks presented by synthetic biology and expressed only a mild enthusiasm for its potential applications. Noteworthy is that support for synthetic biology was always conditional to a number of demands, primarily transparency and information, which were defined as essential. Austrian citizens’ experiment of public engagement revealed also a rather worrisome distrust towards scientists and policy makers, coupled with a sense of resignation towards the inevitability of scientific and technological progress. Similar studies in the UK, Austria, and the US showed that public attitudes are either balanced or mainly negative towards synthetic biology.

These differences between media representations and public perceptions indicate a need for more responsible journalism about synthetic biology.

Mirko Ancillotti

(You can read more about Mirko’s work at CRB here.)

Ancillotti M., Rerimassie V., Seitz S. and Steurer W. 2016 “An update of public perceptions of synthetic biology: still undecided?” NanoEthics, DOI: 10.1007/s11569-016-0256-3

This post in Swedish

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Direct brain communication: a new book

May 17, 2016

Pär SegerdahlImages of the brain, created with advanced technology, are known to most of us. But progress in neuroscience is fast. Less familiar are new technical opportunities to communicate directly with the brain … or however you put it!

Even the unconscious brain is alive. It has been possible to depict responses in the “unconscious” brain to what occurs in its environment. In some cases one has been able to establish communication, where the “unconscious” patient answers yes/no-questions by thinking of one thing if the answer is “yes” and on another thing if the answer is “no.” This activates different parts of the brain. Since researchers/doctors can detect which part of the brain is activated, the patient can answer questions and communicate with the outside world. (Here is an earlier post on this.)

Other examples of this development are new interfaces between brain and computer, where people learn to control a computer, not through the muscles, but via electrodes connected in the brain. People who cannot communicate verbally can thus get computer support. They can also learn to control prostheses. The brain is obviously exceptionally plastic and interactive!

A new anthology, with Michele Farisco and Kathinka Evers from CRB as editors, systematically assesses the philosophical, scientific, ethical and legal issues that this development implies: Neurotechnology and Direct Brain Communication (Routledge, 2016).

The book addresses scientific and clinical implications of the possibility to communicate with patients who may not be quite as unconscious as we thought. Perhaps we should rather talk about altered states of consciousness. But also infant care is discussed, as well as ethical and legal issues about authority, informed consent and privacy.

The book is written for researchers and graduate students in cognitive science, neurology, psychiatry, clinical psychology, medicine, medical ethics, medical technology, neuroethics, neurophilosophy and philosophy of mind. It may interest also healthcare professionals and a broader public fascinated by the mind.

Michele Farisco and Kathinka Evers both work in the European flagship project, Human Brain Project.

(You find more information about the book and about the editors here.)

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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Oppositional words simplify thought: A or B?

May 3, 2016

Pär SegerdahlParties can stand in opposition to each other. But so can words. The word good stands in opposition to the word bad; the word right to the word wrong. And in everyday talk, the word human stands in opposition to the word animal.

Oppositional words are efficient in conversation. If I tell you that I saw an animal, you immediately know that it wasn’t a human I saw. Oppositional words are splendid communicational instruments. They enable quick inferences, like the one about what I saw and didn’t see.

However, oppositional words are not always good to think with. This sounds odd, because we associate thinking with inferences. If oppositional words support inferences, shouldn’t they be absolutely essential to thinking?

The problem is that oppositions support quick inferences, when we need slow ones. They assume a given order, when we need to explore a neglected order.

This we felt intensely at the seminar last Monday, when we discussed empirical ethics. More and more bioethicists do empirical studies (questionnaires, interviews, etc.) of how people look at medical research and care. Based on the empirical studies they then develop normative conclusions, for example, about how ethical guidelines should be formulated.

Empirical ethics thereby seems to sin against a fundamental opposition: that between is and ought. If it is a fact that people from time immemorial cut off the hands of thieves (and thought one should do so), it still does not follow from this fact that one ought to cut off the hands of thieves.

One might say: the is/ought-opposition supports quick inferences about what kind of inferences one cannot make: from an is an ought cannot be extrapolated.

Empirical ethics immediately appears like a ridiculous error. Nothing normative can be derived from mere facts disclosed by surveys and interviews. If such inferences nonetheless are made, they are illegitimate. Empirical studies drain bioethics of normativity, by scooping out of the wrong well.

But is this an accurate description of empirical ethics? Is it just a mistake; like trying to scoop water out of a dry well?

It is easy to accuse empirical ethics in terms of the is/ought-opposition. This makes it seductively easy to think that the only way of defending empirical ethics is by either showing that it honors the is/ought-opposition or rejecting the opposition as false.

– As if oppositions had to be either true or false: another opposition!

You notice here how oppositional words, which work well in conversation, push our thoughts now in this direction, now in that. Instruments that support us when we talk can give us paralyzing shocks when we think. (Don’t try to talk your way out of philosophical problems!)

The discussion about empirical ethics is likely to continue at the seminar. I’m looking forward to it.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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