When the coronavirus began to spread outside China a year ago, the Director General of the World Health Organization said that we are not only fighting an epidemic, but also an infodemic. The term refers to the rapid spread of often false or questionable information.
While governments fight the pandemic through lockdowns, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube fight the infodemic through other kinds of lockdowns and framings of information considered as misinformation. Content can be provided with warning signs and links to what are considered more reliable sources of information. Content can also be removed and in some cases accounts can be suspended.
In an article in EMBO Reports, Emilia Niemiec asks if there are wiser ways to handle the spread of medical misinformation than by letting commercial actors censor the content on their social media platforms. In addition to the fact that censorship seems to contradict the idea of these platforms as places where everyone can freely express their opinion, it is unclear how to determine what information is false and harmful. For example, should researchers be allowed to use YouTube to discuss possible negative consequences of the lockdowns? Or should such content be removed as harmful to the fight against the pandemic?
If commercial social media platforms remove content on their own initiative, why do they choose to do so? Do they do it because the content is scientifically controversial? Or because it is controversial in terms of public opinion? Moreover, in the midst of a pandemic with a new virus, the state of knowledge is not always as clear as one might wish. In such a situation it is natural that even scientific experts disagree on certain important issues. Can social media companies then make reasonable decisions about what we currently know scientifically? We would then have a new “authority” that makes important decisions about what should be considered scientifically proven or well-grounded.
Emilia Niemiec suggests that a wiser way to deal with the spread of medical misinformation is to increase people’s knowledge of how social media works, as well as how research and research communication work. She gives several examples of what we may need to learn about social media platforms and about research to be better equipped against medical misinformation. Education as a vaccine, in other words, which immunises us against the misinformation. This immunisation should preferably take place as early as possible, she writes.
I would like to recommend Emilia Niemiec’s article as a thoughtful discussion of issues that easily provoke quick and strong opinions. Perhaps this is where the root of the problem lies. The pandemic scares us, which makes us mentally tense. Without that fear, it is difficult to understand the rapid spread of unjustifiably strong opinions about facts. Our fear in an uncertain situation makes us demand knowledge, precisely because it does not exist. Anything that does not point in the direction that our fear demands immediately arouses our anger. Fear and anger become an internal mechanism that, at lightning speed, generates hardened opinions about what is true and false, precisely because of the uncertainty of the issues and of the whole situation.
So I am dreaming of one further vaccine. Maybe we need to immunise ourselves also against the fear and the anger that uncertainty causes in our rapidly belief-forming intellects. Can we immunise ourselves against something as human as fear and anger in uncertain situations? In any case, the thoughtfulness of the article raises hopes about it.
To understand how our genes affect health and disease, drug reactions, and much more, researchers need to share vast amounts of data from people in different parts of the world. This makes genomic research dependent on public trust and support.
Do people in general trust research? Are we willing to donate DNA and health information to researchers? Are we prepared to let researchers share the information with other researchers, perhaps in other parts of the world? Even with researchers at for-profit companies? These and other issues were recently examined in the largest study to date about the public’s attitudes to participating in research and sharing genetic information. The questionnaire was translated into 15 languages and answered by 36,268 people in 22 countries.
The majority of respondents are unwilling or unsure about donating DNA and health information to research. In general, the respondents are most willing to donate to research physicians, and least willing to donate to for-profit researchers. Less than half of the respondents say they trust data sharing between several users. The study also reveals differences between countries. In Germany, Poland, Russia and Egypt, for example, trust in data sharing between several users is significantly lower than in China, India, the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
What practical conclusions can we draw from the study? The authors of the article emphasize the importance of increasing the public’s familiarity with genomic research. Researchers need to build trust in data collection and sharing. They need to participate in dialogues that make it clear why they share large amounts of data globally. Why is it so important? It also needs to become more understandable why not only physicians can carry out the research. Why are collaborations with for-profit companies needed? Moreover, what significance can genetic techniques have for future patients?
Well-functioning genomic research thus needs well-functioning research communication. What then is good research communication? According to the article, it is not about pedagogically illustrating the molecular structure of DNA. Rather, it is about understanding the conditions and significance of genomic research for healthcare, patients, and society, as well as the role of industry in research and development.
Personally, I want to put it this way. Good research communication helps us see things more perspicuously. We need continuous overviews of interrelated parts of our own societies. We need to see our roles and relationships with each other in complex societies with different but intertwined activities, such as research, healthcare, industry, and much more. The need for perspicuous overviews also applies to the experts, whose specialties easily create one-sidedness.
In this context, let me cautiously warn against the instinctive reaction to believe that debate is the obvious form of research-communicative exchange of thoughts. Although debates have a role to play, they often serve as arenas for competing perspectives, all of which want to narrow our field of view. This is probably the last thing we need, if we want to open up for perspicuous understandings of ourselves as human beings, researchers, donors, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals and patients. How do we relate to each other? How do I, as a donor of DNA to researchers, relate to the patients I want to help?
We need to think carefully about what it means to think freely, together, about common issues, such as the global sharing of genomic data.
Middleton A., Milne R. and Almarri M.A. et al. (2020). Global public perceptions of genomic data sharing: what shapes the willingness to donate DNA and health data? American Journal of Human Genetics. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2020.08.023
Academic 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’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.
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.
The STARBIOS2 project has carried out its activities in a context of the profound transformations that affect contemporary societies, and now we are all facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Science and society have always coevolved, they are interconnected entities, but their relationship is changing and it has been for some time. This shift from modern to so-called postmodern society affects all social institutions in similar ways, whether their work is in politics, religion, family, state administration, or bioscience.
We can find a wide range of phenomena connected to this trend in the literature, for instance: globalization; weakening of previous social “structures” (rules, models of action, values and beliefs); more capacity and power of individuals to think and act more freely (thanks also to new communication technologies); exposure to risks of different kinds (climate change, weakening of welfare, etc.); great social and cultural diversification; and weakening of traditional boundaries and spheres of life, etc.
In this context, we are witnessing the diminishing authority and prestige of all political, religious, even scientific institutions, together with a decline in people’s trust towards these institutions. One example would be the anti-vaccination movement.
Meanwhile, scientific research is also undergoing profound transformations, experiencing a transition that has been examined in various ways and called various names. At the heart of this transformation is the relationship between research and the society it belongs to. We can observe a set of global trends in science.
Such trends include the increasing relationship between universities, governments and industries; the emergence of approaches aimed at “opening” science to society, such as citizen science; the diffusion of cooperative practices in scientific production; the increasing relevance of transdisciplinarity; the increasing expectation that scientific results have economic, social, and environmental impacts; the increasingly competitive access to public funds for research; the growing importance attached to quantitative evaluation systems based on publications, often with distorting effects and questionable results; and the emergence on the international economic and technological scene of actors such as India, China, Brazil, South Africa and others. These trends produce risks and opportunities for both science and society.
Critical concerns for science includes career difficulties for young researchers and women in the scientific sector; the cost of publishing and the difficulties to publish open access; and the protection of intellectual property rights.
Of course, these trends and issues manifest in different ways and intensities according to the different political, social and cultural contexts they exist in.
After the so-called “biological revolution” and within the context of the “fourth industrial revolution” and with “converging technologies” like genetics, robotics, info-digital, neurosciences, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, and artificial intelligence, the biosciences are at a crossroads in its relationship to society.
In this new context, more and more knowledge is produced and technological solutions developed require a deeper understanding of their status, limits, and ethical and social acceptability (take organoids, to name one example). Moreover, food security, clean energy transition, climate change, and pandemics are all challenges where bioscience can play a crucial role, while new legal, ethical, and social questions that need to be dealt with arise.
These processes have been running for years, albeit in different ways, and national and international decision-makers have been paying attention. Various forms of governance have been developed and implemented over time, to re-establish and harmonize the relationship between scientific and technological research and the rest of society, including more general European strategies and approaches such as Smart Specialization, Open Innovation, Open Science and Responsible Research and Innovation as well as strategies related to specific social aspects of science (such as ethics or gender).
Taking on an approach such as RRI is not simply morally recommendable, but indispensable for attempting a re-alignment between scientific research and the needs of society. Starting from the areas of the life of the scientific communities that are most crucial to science-society relations (The 5+1 RRI keys: Science education, Gender equality, Public engagement, Ethics, Open access, and the cross-cutting sixth key: Governance) and taking the four RRI dimensions into account (anticipation, inclusiveness, responsiveness, and reflexivity) can provide useful guidance for how to activate and drive change in research organisations and research systems.
We elaborate and experiment, in search of the most effective and most relevant solution. While at the same time, there is a need to encourage mainstreaming of the most substantial solutions, to root them more deeply and sustainably in the complex fabric of scientific organisations and networks. Which leads us to ask ourselves: in this context, how can we mainstream RRI and its application in the field of bioscience?
Based on what we know, and on experiences from the STARBIOS2 project, RRI and similar approaches need to be promoted and supported by specific policies and contextualised on at least four levels.
Organizational contextualization Where mainstreaming takes place through the promotion of a greater embedment of RRI, or similar approaches, within the individual research organizations such as universities, national institutes, private centres, etc.
Disciplinary or sectoral contextualization Where mainstreaming consists of adapting the responsible research and innovation approach to a specific discipline − for example, biotechnology − or to an entire “sector” in a broad sense, such as bioscience.
Geopolitical and cultural contextualization Where mainstreaming aims to identify forms of adaptation, or rather reshaping, RRI or similar approaches, in various geopolitical and cultural contexts, taking into account elements such as the features of the national research systems, the economy, territorial dynamics, local philosophy and traditions, etc.
Historical contextualization Where RRI mainstreaming is related to the ability of science to respond to the challenges that history poses from time to time − and of which the COVID-19 pandemic is only the last, serious example − and to prevent them as much as possible.
During the course of the STARBIOS2 project, we have developed a set of guidelines and a sustainable model for RRI implementation in bioscience research institutions. Over the course of 4 years, 6 bioscience research institutions in Europe, and 3 outside Europe, worked together to achieve structural change towards RRO in their own research institutions with the goal of achieving responsible biosciences. We were looking forward to revealing and discussing our results in April, but with the Covid-19 outbreak, neither that event nor our Cape Town workshop was a possibility. Luckily, we have adapted and will now share our findings online, at our final event on 29 May. We hope to see you there.
For our final remark, as the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging our societies, our political and economic systems, we recognise that scientists are also being challenged. By the corona virus as well as by contextual challenges. The virus is testing their ability to play a key role to the public, to share information and to produce relevant knowledge. But when we go back to “normal”, the challenge of changing science-society relations will persist. And we will remain convinced that RRI and similar approaches will be a valuable contribution to addressing these challenges, now and in the future.
Daniele Mezzana, a social researcher working in the STARBIOS2 project (Structural Transformation to Attain Responsible BIOSciences) as part of the coordination team at University of Rome – Tor Vergata.
This text is based on the Discussion Note for the STARBIOS2 final event on 29 May 2020.
The STARBIOS2 project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 709517. The contents of this text and the view expressed are the sole responsibility of the author and under no circumstances can be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.
Our attitude to science is changing. Can we talk solemnly about it anymore as a unified endeavor, or even about sciences? It seems more apt to talk about research activities that produce useful and applicable knowledge.
Science has been dethroned, it seems. In the past, we revered it as free and independent search for the truth. We esteemed it as our tribunal of truth, as the last arbiter of truth. Today, we demand that it brings benefits and adapts to society. The change is full of tension because we still want to use scientific expertise as a higher intellectual authority. Should we bow to the experts or correct them if they do not deliver the “right knowledge” or the “desirable facts”?
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is an attempt to manage this risky change, adapting science to new social requirements. As you hear from the name, RRI is partly an expression of the same basic attitude change. One could perhaps view RRI as the responsible dethroning of science.
Some mourn the dethroning, others rejoice. Here I just want to link RRI to the changed attitude to science. RRI handles a change that is basically affirmed. The ambiguous attitude to scientific expertise, mentioned above, shows how important it is that we take responsibility for people’s trust in what is now called research and innovation. For why should we listen to representatives of a sector with such unholy designation?
RRI is introduced in European research within the Horizon 2020 programme. Several projects are specifically about implementing and studying RRI. Important aspects of RRI are gender equality, open access publishing, science education, research communication, public engagement and ethics. It is about adapting research and innovation to a society with new hopes and demands on what we proudly called science.
A new book describes experiences of implementing RRI in a number of bioscience organizations around the world. The book is written within the EU-project, STARBIOS2. In collaboration with partners in Europe, Africa and the Americas, this project planned and implemented several RRI initiatives and reflected on the work process. The purpose of STARBIOS2 has been to change organizations durably and structurally. The book aims to help readers formulate their own action plans and initiate structural changes in their organizations.
The cover describes the book as guidelines. However, you will not find formulated guidelines. What you will find, and which might be more helpful, is self-reflection on concrete examples of how to work with RRI action plans. You will find suggestions on how to emphasize responsibility in research and development. Thus, you can read about efforts to support gender equality, improve exchange with the public and with society, support open access publication, and improve ethics. Read and be inspired!
Finally, I would like to mention that the Ethics Blog, as well as our ethics activities here at CRB, could be regarded as examples of RRI. I plan to return later with a post on research communication.
The STARBIOS2 project is organising a virtual final event on 29 May! Have a look at the preliminary programme!
Anthropomorphism almost seems inscribed in research on artificial intelligence (AI). Ever since the beginning of the field, machines have been portrayed in terms that normally describe human abilities, such as understanding and learning. The emphasis is on similarities between humans and machines, while differences are downplayed. Like when it is claimed that machines can perform the same psychological tasks that humans perform, such as making decisions and solving problems, with the supposedly insignificant difference that machines do it “automated.”
The article draws particular attention to so-called brain-inspired AI research, where technology development draws inspiration from what we know about the functioning of the brain. Here, close relationships are emphasized between AI and neuroscience: bonds that are considered to be decisive for developments in both fields of research. Neuroscience needs inspiration from AI research it is claimed, just as AI research needs inspiration from brain research.
The article warns that this idea of a close relationship between the two fields presupposes an anthropomorphic interpretation of AI. In fact, brain-inspired AI multiplies the conceptual double exposures by projecting not only psychological but also neuroscientific concepts onto machines. AI researchers talk about artificial neurons, synapses and neural networks in computers, as if they incorporated artificial brain tissue into the machines.
An overlooked risk of anthropomorphism in AI, according to the authors, is that it can conceal essential characteristics of the technology that make it fundamentally different from human intelligence. In fact, anthropomorphism risks limiting scientific and technological development in AI, since it binds AI to the human brain as privileged source of inspiration. Anthropomorphism can also entice brain research to uncritically use AI as a model for how the brain works.
Of course, the authors do not deny that AI and neuroscience mutually support each other and should cooperate. However, in order for cooperation to work well, and not limit scientific and technological development, philosophical thinking is also needed. We need to clarify conceptual differences between humans and machines, brains and computers. We need to free ourselves from the tendency to exaggerate similarities, which can be more verbal than real. We also need to pay attention to deep-rooted differences between humans and machines, and learn from the differences.
Anthropomorphism in AI risks encouraging irresponsible research communication, the authors further write. This is because exaggerated hopes (hype) seem intrinsic to the anthropomorphic language. By talking about computers in psychological and neurological terms, it sounds as if these machines already essentially functioned as human brains. The authors speak of an anthropomorphic hype around neural network algorithms.
Philosophy can thus also contribute to responsible research communication about artificial intelligence. Such communication draws attention to exaggerated claims and hopes inscribed in the anthropomorphic language of the field. It counteracts the tendency to exaggerate similarities between humans and machines, which rarely go as deep as the projected words make it sound.
In short, differences can be as important and instructive as similarities. Not only in philosophy, but also in science, technology and responsible research communication.
After 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.
Why should we hold our philosophical tradition in high esteem? Why should we admire Socrates and other great thinkers? Because they strengthened reason? Because they taught humanity to set emotions aside and instead purify facts and logic?
If that were true, we should admire the philosophers for armoring humanity. For turning us into clever neurotics without contact with our emotional life.
I believe the greatness of these philosophers is more simple, humble and human. They were embarrassingly aware of their own intellectual sinfulness. They had the courage to confess their sins and to examine them closely. They had the courage to know themselves.
That sincere humility, I believe, marks true thinkers from all parts of the world. Just as Socrates, in the middle of a discourse, could hear an inner voice stop him from speaking with intellectual authority on some topic, Lao Tzu saw it as a disease to speak as if we knew what we do not know.
These genuine thinkers hardly spoke with intellectual certainty. At least not in their most creative moments. They probably felt ashamed of the cocksure voice that marks many of our intellectual discussions about prestigious topics. They probably spoke tentatively and reasoned hesitantly.
We are all fallible. Philosophy is, at heart, intense awareness of this human fact. How does such awareness manifest in a thinker? Usually through questions that openly confess that, I know that I do not know. A philosophical inquiry is a long series of confessions. It is a series of sincere questions exposing a deep-rooted will to control intellectually the essence of various matters. The questions become clearer as we come to see more distinctly how this will to power operates in us. When we see how our desire to dictate intellectually what must be true, blinds us to what is true.
Do you and I, as academics, dare to admit our intellectual sinfulness? Do we dare to confess that we do not know? Do we have the courage to speak tentatively and to reason hesitantly?
I believe that we would do a great service to ourselves and to humanity if we more often dared to speak openly in such a voice. However, we are facing a difficulty of the will. For there is an expectation that researchers should master facts and logic. Surely, we are not paid to be ignorant and irrational. Therefore, must we not rather disseminate our knowledge and our expertise?
Of course! However, without awareness of our intellectual sinfulness, which could stop Socrates in the middle of a sentence, we run the risk of contributing to the disease that he treated in himself. We display not only what we happen to know, but also a shiny facade that gives the impression that we control the truth about important matters.
In short, we run the risk of behaving like intellectual Pharisees, exhibiting an always well-polished surface. Below that surface, we wither away, together with the society to which we want to contribute. We lose touch with what truly is alive in us. It succumbs under the pressure of our general doctrines about what must be true. Intellectualism is a devastating form of fact denialism. In its craving for generality, it denies what is closest to us.
Do not armor yourself with rationalism as if truth could be controlled. Instead, do what the greatest thinkers in the history of all of humanity did. Open yourself to what you do not know and explore it in earnest.
You are vaster than your imagined knowledge. Know yourself!
In 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.
Media 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.