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

We care about communication - the Ethics Blog

Scientists shape how the media portray synthetic biology

October 27, 2015

mirko-ancillotti2 Most of us learn about scientific developments through the media. Journalists and newspaper editors not only select what to bring to public attention but also the way the contents are conveyed. But how can we be sure that what they report is well researched?

There are some new studies on how media portray synthetic biology in different countries. It turns out that reports are both unbalanced and uncritical. Most of the stories use the same terminology, figures of speech and envision the same fields of application. This is because they rely on the same sources: press releases, press conferences or interviews with a few prolific American scientists, with Craig Venter doing the lion’s share. Stories are often optimistic and future oriented. The promising applications of synthetic biology are connected to subjects that people already prioritize like health and environment. But it also means that the possible risks are omitted or presented in a few choice words close to the end.

josepine-fernow2Scientists have a public role and a duty to perform science outreach and science communication in a responsible way. This duty is amplified by the interaction with mass media. Indeed, there are a number of national and international regulations and guidelines that provide indications on what kind of relationship and communication scientists should entertain with the media and what pitfalls they should avoid. Is it a problem that the media copy their framing and present the field with their words? If scientists can reach the public directly, does that mean that we should increase our demand on their communication? Maybe not. Managing to popularize and frame science in a way that attracts media’s attention and an inattentive and unengaged public is already a communications feat.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities and a strong professional ethics. This resounds in a remarkable amount of national and international guidelines and regulations. Did the journalists do a good job when they kept the message and vision the scientists provided and spread that to the public? Should we ask journalists to be more critical and filter the voice of the scientists involved?

Well, we would of course prefer to receive balanced information filtered by knowledgeable science journalists. But science news is not always handled by them. Perhaps the real problem is the logic of the current media landscape. There is no time to research a press-release: the news have to go out, otherwise someone will beat you to it.  In the extreme, this logic allows for hoax press releases to become news (like the one that made the Emulex stock plummet in 2000). If we want journalists to do a good job, we have to give them time. Because the idea that media basically “retweet” what a few scientists and entrepreneurs decide is of course a bit disturbing.

If you are interested to read more about this topic have a look at Mirko Ancillotti’s recent publications:Uncritical and unbalanced coverage of synthetic biology in the Nordic press that was just published in Public Understanding of Science, or Synthetic Biology in the Press: Media Portrayal in Sweden and Italy.

Mirko Ancillotti and Josepine Fernow

We care about communication - the Ethics Blog

Uniquely controversial: why is new biotechnology often so extraordinarily upsetting?

December 11, 2013

Artificial insemination, genetically modified organisms, and attempts in synthetic biology to create artificial life have this in common: they tend to provoke moral responses in terms of borders that should not be transgressed.

A recent article by Thomas Douglas, Russell Powell, and Julian Savulescu discusses synthetic biology from this point of view:

They analyze arguments that claim that producing artificial organisms from non-living components is morally significant in the sense that it constitutes “the” ultimate transgression of the border that should not be transgressed.

They quite successfully show that the arguments fail. Certainly, producing artificial life can in some cases instantiate attitudes of hubris; it can produce environmental risks; it can encourage problematic reductionism; and it does produce organisms that, since they lack evolutionary history, have unclear moral status within biocentric accounts of moral status.

But: hubris and environmental risks can characterize other endeavors as well, and there is no reason to assume that creating organisms from non-living components is more likely to sustain hubris or pose environmental threats than modifying existing organisms. Moreover, reductionism is rejected by most biologists, and there is no reason to assume that synthetic biology is uniquely capable of encouraging reductionism. Finally, the fact that artificial organisms have unclear moral status in biocentric accounts is irrelevant, since what really matters for moral status “is not origin, but mental capacity.”

What the article less successfully addresses, though, is the question why people repeatedly want to say: this is an extraordinary activity, it transgresses a border that should not be transgressed. For it has been said before, about other forms of biotechnology. Synthetic biology is not unique in this respect.

The sense of extraordinary transgression is translated in the article into an intellectual claim that synthetic biology is the extraordinary transgression. By turning the recurrent sense of extraordinary transgression into such a specific claim about synthetic biology, the article in my view makes it too easy for itself. It fails to address the original sense of extraordinary transgression.

The question in my headline still awaits its answer.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

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