Responsibly planned research communication

May 25, 2020

Pär SegerdahlAcademic research is driven by dissemination of results to peers at conferences and through publication in scientific journals. However, research results belong not only to the research community. They also belong to society. Therefore, results should reach not only your colleagues in the field or the specialists in adjacent fields. They should also reach outside the academy.

Who is out there? A homogeneous public? No, it is not that simple. Communicating research is not two activities: first communicating the science to peers and then telling the popular scientific story to the public. Outside the academy, we find engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, government officials, teachers, students, research funders, taxpayers, healthcare professionals… We are all out there with our different experiences, functions and skills.

Research communication is therefore a strategically more complicated task than just “reaching the public.” Why do you want to communicate your results; why are they important? Who will find your results important? How do you want to communicate them? When is the best time to communicate? There is not just one task here. You have to think through what the task is in each particular case. For the task varies with the answers to these questions. Only when you can think strategically about the task can you communicate research responsibly.

Josepine Fernow is a skilled and experienced research communications officer at CRB. She works with communication in several research projects, including the Human Brain Project and STARBIOS2. In the latter project, about Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), she contributes in a new book with arguments for responsibly planned research communication: Achieving impact: some arguments for designing a communications strategy.

Josepine Fernow’s contribution is, in my view, more than a convincing argument. It is an eye-opening text that helps researchers see more clearly their diverse relationships to society, and thereby their responsibilities. The academy is not a rock of knowledge in a sea of ​​ignorant lay people. Society consists of experienced people who, because of what they know, can benefit from your research. It is easier to think strategically about research communication when you survey your relations to a diversified society that is already knowledgeable. Josepine Fernow’s argumentation helps and motivates you to do that.

Josepine Fernow also warns against exaggerating the significance of your results. Bioscience has potential to give us effective treatments for serious diseases, new crops that meet specific demands, and much more. Since we are all potential beneficiaries of such research, as future patients and consumers, we may want to believe the excessively wishful stories that some excessively ambitious researchers want to tell. We participate in a dangerous game of increasingly unrealistic hopes.

The name of this dangerous game is hype. Research hype can make it difficult for you to continue your research in the future, because of eroded trust. It can also make you prone to take unethical shortcuts. The “huge potential benefit” obscures your judgment as a responsible researcher.

In some research fields, it is extra difficult to avoid research hype, as exaggerated hopes seem inscribed in the very language of the field. An example is artificial intelligence (AI), where the use of psychological and neuroscientific vocabulary about machines can create the impression that one has already fulfilled the hopes. Anthropomorphic language can make it sound as if some machines already thought like humans and functioned like brains.

Responsible research communication is as important as difficult. Therefore, these tasks deserve our greatest attention. Read Josepine Fernow’s argumentation for carefully planned communication strategies. It will help you see more clearly your responsibility.

Finally, a reminder for those interested: the STARBIOS2 project organizes its final event via Zoom on Friday, May 29, 2020.

Pär Segerdahl

Fernow, J. (2019). Note #11: Achieving impact: Some arguments for designing a communications strategy, In A. Declich (Ed.), RRI implementation in bioscience organisations: Guidelines from the STARBIOS2 project, (pp. 177-180). Uppsala University. ISBN: 978-91-506-2811-1

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Proceed carefully with vaccine against covid-19

April 4, 2020

Pär SegerdahlPharmaceutical companies want to quickly manufacture a vaccine against covid-19, with human testing and launch in the market as soon as possible. In a debate article, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist at CRB warns of the risk of losing the larger risk perspective: “Tests on people and a potential premature mass vaccination entail risks. It is easy to forget about similar situations in the past,” she writes.

It may take time for side effects to appear. Unfortunately, it therefore also takes time to develop new safe vaccines. We need to develop a vaccine, but even with new vaccines, caution is needed.

The article is in Swedish. If you want to Google translate: Proceed carefully with vaccine against covid-19

Pär Segerdahl

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Herb Terrace about the chimpanzee Nim – do you see the contradiction?

March 23, 2020

Pär SegerdahlHave you seen small children make repeated attempts to squeeze a square object through a round hole (plastic toy for the little ones)? You get puzzled: Do they not see that it is impossible? The object and the hole have different shapes!

Sometimes adults are just as puzzling. Our intellect does not always fit reality. Yet, we force our thoughts onto reality, even when they have different shapes. Maybe we are extra stubborn precisely when it is not possible. This post is about such a case.

Herb Terrace is known as the psychologist who proved that apes cannot learn language. He himself tried to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim, but failed according to his own judgement. When Terrace took a closer look at the videotapes, where Nim interacted with his human sign-language teachers, he saw how Nim merely imitated the teachers’ signs, to get his reward.

I recently read a blog post by Terrace where he not only repeats the claim that his research demonstrates that apes cannot learn language. The strange thing is that he also criticizes his own research severely. He writes that he used the wrong method with Nim, namely, that of giving him rewards when the teacher judged that he made the right signs. The reasoning becomes even more puzzling when Terrace writes that not even a human child could learn language with such a method.

To me, this is as puzzling as a child’s insistence on squeezing a square object through a round hole. If Terrace used the wrong method, which would not work even on a human child, then how can he conclude that Project Nim demonstrates that apes cannot learn language? Nevertheless, he insists on reasoning that way, without feeling that he contradicts himself. Nor does anyone who read him seem to experience any contradiction. Why?

Perhaps because most of us think that humans cannot teach animals anything at all, unless we train them with rewards. Therefore, since Nim did not learn language with this training method, apes cannot learn language. Better methods do not work on animals, we think. If Terrace failed, then everyone must fail, we think.

However, one researcher actually did try a better method in ape language research. She used an approach to young apes that works with human children. She stopped training the apes via a system of rewards. She lived with the apes, as a parent with her children. And it succeeded!

Terrace almost never mentions the name of the successful ape language researcher. After all, she used a method that is impossible with animals: she did not train them. Therefore, she cannot have succeeded, we think.

I can tell you that the name of the successful researcher is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. To see a round reality beyond a square thinking, we need to rethink our thought pattern. If you want to read a book that tries to do such rethinking about apes, humans and language, I recommend a philosophical self-critique that I wrote with Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleague William Fields.

To philosophize is to learn to stop imposing our insane thoughts on reality. Then we finally see reality as it is.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language. The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Communicating thought provoking research in our common language

December 11, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAfter having been the editor of the Ethics Blog for eight years, I would like to describe the research communication that usually occurs on this blog.

The Ethics Blog wants to avoid the popular scientific style that sometimes occurs in the media, which reports research results on the form, “We have traditionally believed that…, but a recent scientific study shows that…” This is partly because the Ethics Blog is run by a research center in ethics, CRB. Although ethics may involve empirical studies (for example, interviews and surveys), it is not least a matter of thinking. If you, as an ethicist, want to develop new recommendations on informed consent, you must think clearly and thoroughly. However, no matter how rigorously you think, you can never say, “We have traditionally believed that it is ethically important to inform patients about…, but recent philosophical thoughts show that we should avoid doing that.”

Thinking does not provide the authority that empirical research gives. As an ethicist or a philosopher, I cannot report my conclusions as if they were research results. Nor can I invoke “recent thoughts” as evidence. Thoughts give no evidence. Ethicists therefore present their entire thinking on different issues to the critical gaze of readers. They present their conclusions as open suggestions to the reader: “Here is how I honestly think about this issue, can you see it that way too?”

The Ethics Blog therefore avoids merely disseminating research results. Of course, it informs about new findings, but it emphasizes their thought provoking aspects. It chooses to reflect on what is worth thinking about in the research. This allows research communication to work more on equal terms with the reader, since the author and the reader meet in thinking about aspects that make both wonder. Moreover, since each post tries to stand on its own, without invoking intellectual authority (“the ethicists’ most recent thoughts show that…”), the reader can easily question the blogger’s attempts to think independently.

In short: By communicating research in a philosophical spirit, science can meet people on more equal terms than when they are informed about “recent scientific findings.” By focusing on the thought provoking aspects of the research, research communication can avoid a patronizing attitude to the reader. At least that is the ambition of the Ethics Blog.

Another aspect of the research communication at CRB, also beyond the Ethics Blog, is that we want to use our ordinary language as far as possible. Achieving a simple style of writing, however, is not easy! Why are we making this effort, which is almost doomed to fail when it comes to communicating academic research? Why do Anna Holm, Josepine Fernow and I try to communicate research without using strange words?

Of course, we have reflected on our use of language. Not only do we want to reach many different groups: the public, patients and their relatives, healthcare staff, policy makers, researchers, geneticists and more. We also want these groups to understand each other a little better. Our common language accommodates more human agreement than we usually believe.

Moreover, ethics research often highlights the difficulties that different groups have in understanding each other. It can be about patients’ difficulties in understanding genetic risk information, or about geneticists’ difficulties in understanding how patients think about genetic risk. It may be about cancer patients’ difficulties in understanding what it means to participate in clinical trials, or about cancer researchers’ difficulties in understanding how patients think.

If ethics identifies our human difficulties in understanding each other as important ethical problems, then research communication will have a particular responsibility for clarifying things. Otherwise, research communication risks creating more communication difficulties, in addition to those identified by ethics! Ethics itself would become a communication problem. We therefore want to write as clearly and simply as we can, to reach the groups that according to the ethicists often fail to reach each other.

We hope that our communication on thought provoking aspects of ethics research stimulates readers to think for themselves about ethical issues. Everyone can wonder. Non-understanding is actually a source of wisdom, if we dare to admit it.

Pär Segerdahl

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Why should we care about the environment and climate change?

October 8, 2019

Jessica Nihlén FahlquistTo most of us, it is self-evident that we, as human beings and societies, should care about the environment and climate change. Greta Thunberg has, in a remarkable way, spurred political interest and engagement in climate change. This effort has affected our thoughts and emotions concerning environmental policy. However, when we dig deeper into the philosophical debate, there are different ideas on why we should care about the environment. That is, even though we agree on the need to care, there are various arguments as to why and how we should do that.

First, some scholars argue that we should care about nature because we need it and what we get from it. Nature is crucial to us, for example, because it provides us with water and food as well as air to breathe. Without nature and a good climate, we simply cannot live on planet Earth. Unless we make a substantial effort, our lifestyle will lead to flooding, unmanageable migration and many other enormous challenges. Furthermore, it will affect poorer people and poorer regions the most, making it a crucial issue of justice.

Second, some philosophers argue that it is wrong to base our concern for nature and the environment on the needs of, and effects on, human beings. The anthropocentric assumptions are wrong, they argue. Even without human beings, nature has a value. Its value is intrinsic and not merely instrumental. Proponents of this view often claim that animals have values, and possibly even rights, that should be protected. They disagree on whether it is individual animals, species or even ecosystems that should be protected.

Environmental philosophy consists of many different theoretical schools, and the notions they defend underlie societal debate, explicitly or merely implicitly. Some notions are based on consequentialist ethics and others on deontological ethics. In addition to these two schools of thought, virtue ethics has become influential in the philosophical debate.

Environmental Virtue Ethics holds that it is inadequate to focus on consequences, duties and rights. Furthermore, it is inadequate to focus on rules and legislation. Our respect for and reverence for nature is based on the virtues we ought to develop as human beings. In addition, society should encourage such virtues. Virtue ethics focuses on the character traits, on the dispositions to act, and on the attitudes and emotions that are relevant to a certain area, in this case the environment. It is a richer, more complex theory than the other two mentioned. Even though virtues were first discussed during Antiquity, and the concept might seem obsolete, they are highly relevant in our time. Through reflection, experience and role models, we can all develop virtues crucial to environmental protection and sustainability. The idea is not only that society needs these virtuous people, but that virtuous human beings blossom as individuals when they develop these virtues. They argue that it is wrong to see nature as a commodity belonging to us. Instead, it is argued, we are part of nature and have a special relationship with it. This relationship should be the focus of the debate.

Whereas Environmental Virtue Ethics focuses on ethical virtues, that is, how we should relate to nature through our development into virtuous individuals, a related school of thought focuses on the aesthetical value of nature. It is pointed out that not only does nature have ethical value, but an aesthetical value in virtue of its beauty. We should spend time in nature in order to fully appreciate its aesthetical value.

All of the mentioned schools of thought agree that we should care about the environment and climate. They also hold that sustainability is an important national and global goal. Interestingly, what is beneficial from a sustainability perspective is not necessarily beneficial to climate changes. For instance, nuclear energy could be considered good for climate change due to its marginal emissions, but it is doubtful that it is good for sustainability considering the problems of nuclear waste.

Finally, it is important to include the discussion of moral responsibility. If we agree that it is crucial to save the environment, then the question arises who should take responsibility for materializing this goal. One could argue that individuals bear a personal responsibility to, for example, reduce consumption and use sustainable transportation. However, one could also argue that the greatest share of responsibility should be taken by political institutions, primarily states. In addition, a great share of responsibility might be ascribed to private actors and industries.

We could also ask whether, and to what extent, responsibility is about blame for past events, for example, the western world causing too much carbon emissions in the past. Alternatively, we could focus on what needs to be done now, regardless of causation and blame. According to this line of thinking, the most important question to ask is who has the resources and capacity to make the necessary changes. The questions of responsibility could be conceptualized as questions of individual versus collective responsibility and backward-looking versus forward-looking responsibility.

As we can see, there are many philosophically interesting aspects and discussions concerning the question why we should care about the environment. Hopefully, these discussions can contribute to making the challenges more comprehensible and manageable. Ideally, they can assist in the tremendous work done by Greta Thunberg and others like her so that it can lead to agreement on what needs to be done by individuals, nations and the world.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist

Nihlén Fahlquist, J. 2018. Moral Responsibility and Risk in Modern Society – Examples from emerging technologies, public health and environment. Routledge Earth Scan Risk in Society series: London.

Van de Poel, I. Nihlén Fahlquist, J, Doorn, N., Zwart, S, Royakkers L, di Lima, T. 2011. The problem of many hands: climate change as an example. Science and Engineering Ethics.

Nihlen Fahlquist J. 2009. Moral responsibility for environmental problems – individual or institutional? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 22(2), pp. 109-124.

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Learning from the difficulties

September 11, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIn popular scientific literature, research can sometimes appear deceptively simple: “In the past, people believed that … But when researchers looked more closely, they found that …” It may seem as if researchers need not do much more than visit archives or laboratories. There, they take a closer look at things and discover amazing results.

There is nothing wrong with this popular scientific prose. It is exciting to read about new research results. However, the prose often hides the difficulties of the research work, the orientation towards questions and problems. As I said, there is nothing wrong with this. Readers of popular science rarely need to know how physicists or sociologists struggle daily to formulate their questions and delve into the problems. Readers are more interested in new findings about our fascinating world.

However, there are academic fields where the questions affect us all more directly, and where the questions are at the center of the research process from beginning to end. Two examples are philosophy and ethics. Here, identifying the difficult questions can be the important thing. Today, for example, genetics is developing rapidly. That means it affects more people; it affects us all. Genetic tests can now be purchased on the internet and more and more patients may be genetically tested in healthcare to individualize their treatment.

Identifying ethical issues around this development, delving into the problems, becoming aware of the difficulties, can be the main element of ethics research. Such difficulty-oriented work can make us better prepared, so that we can act more wisely.

In addition, ethical problems often arise in the meeting between living human beings and new technological opportunities. Identifying these human issues may require that the language that philosophy and ethics use is less specialized, that it speaks to all of us, whether we are experts or not. Therefore, many of the posts on the Ethics Blog attempt to speak directly to the human being in all of us.

It may seem strange that research that delves into questions can help us act wisely. Do we not rather become paralyzed by all the questions and problems? Do we not need clear ethical guidelines in order to act wisely?

Well, sometimes we need guidelines. But they must not be exaggerated. Think about how much better you function when you do something for the second time (when you become a parent for the second time, for example). Why do we function better the second time? Is it because the second time we are following clear guidelines?

We grow through being challenged by difficulties. Philosophy and ethics delve into the difficulties for this very reason. To help us to grow, mature, become wiser. Individually and together, as a society. I do not know anyone who matured as a human being through reading guidelines.

Pär Segerdahl

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The human being is not only a category

January 9, 2019

Pär SegerdahlWe often use words as categories, as names of classes of things or individuals in the world. Humans and animals. Englishmen and Germans. Capitalists and Communists. Christians and Muslims. I want to highlight a difficulty we may encounter if we try to handle the problem of human violence from such an outward looking perspective.

Something that easily happens is that we start looking for the ideal subcategory of humans, whom we cannot accuse of any violence. If we only found a truly peaceful group of humans, somewhere in the world, we could generalize it to all humanity. We could create an evidence-based humanity, finally living peacefully. We could wipe out the problem of violence! However, where do we find the nonviolent humans who, on scientific grounds, could guide the rest of humanity to peace?

One problem here is that if we find some peaceful humans, perhaps on the British Isles, or in the Himalayas, then we must convert all other humans on the surface of this planet to the peaceful category. That does not sound promising! On the contrary, it sounds like a recipe for war.

Already the search for evidence seems violent, since it will repeat not just one, but all accusations of violence that ever were directed at groups of people. After all, there are:

  • violent Christians
  • violent Muslims
  • violent Capitalists
  • violent Anti-Capitalists
  • violent Germans
  • violent Englishmen

Moreover, there are violent trombonists. We also know that there are violent democrats, as well as violent anti-democrats. Lately we have been surprised to learn that even Buddhists can persecute humans and burn down temples and mosques. How about that! Even Buddhists are violent. The project to create an evidence-based, peaceful humanity seems hopeless.

However, let us turn this around. After all, we are all humans:

  • Christians are humans
  • Muslims are humans
  • Capitalists are humans
  • Anti-Capitalists are humans
  • Germans are humans
  • Englishmen are humans

Trombonists are humans, as are democrats, anti-democrats and Buddhists. We are all humans. Does it not sound hopeful when we acknowledge the fact that we are all humans? It certainly does sound full of promise. But why?

Is it perhaps because we stop opposing humans and instead speak more grandiosely about the human as one big universal category? I do not think so. After all, the problem was, from the beginning, that there are:

  • violent humans

It is not difficult to distrust the human as a universal category. Would it not be best if the human simply disappeared from this overburdened planet? Is it not horrible that we are all these humans, intruding on nature? In fact, there are those who propose that we should transgress the human category and become post-human. As though the solution were an unborn category.

No, the hope we felt emerged, I think, precisely because we stopped talking about human beings as a category. Notice the word we humans. What does it mean to talk about us humans? I think it means that we no longer speak of the human as a category in the world, not even grandiosely as a universal category. Rather, the human is, more intimately, “all of us,” “you and me,” “each one of us.”

When we talk about the human from within, we do not accuse the human as a worldly category to be violent. Rather, we see the violence in ourselves. I see it in me; you see it in you. We see the violence in each one of us; we see it in all of us. The responsibility thereby naturally becomes our own human responsibility. That is where the hope we felt emanated, I believe. It came from the internal perspective on the human. This nearness to ourselves made acknowledging that we are all humans sound full of promise.

I stop here. I just wanted to remind you of the fact that the human being is not only a worldly category with which to calculate and experiment. The category of the human can make us blind to ourselves as intimately alive, and thereby to the violence in us and to our responsibility for it.

I just hope this reminder did not trigger further violence: “What!? Are you suggesting that the problem lies in me? How impudent! Please, don’t include me in your pathetic we.”

Pär Segerdahl

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