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Communicating Ethically With Lay Audiences
November 1, 2007

Scientists have to adhere to certain ethical standards in their research, but what happens when they talk about that research with the public?

“The philosophers and the humanists have had a lot to say about how to improve the ethics of scientific research, but relatively little has been said about scientific communication,” said Bruce Glymour, associate professor of philosophy at Kansas State University. “We want to help fill that gap.”

Prof. Glymour and his colleagues are part of a Research Communications Ethics Project, a collaboration between the Center for the Understanding of Origins at K-State, the philosophy and psychology departments, and colleagues from the physics department, Division of Biology and the department of speech communication, theater and dance. K-State received a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for Ethics Education in Science and Engineering. The K-State researchers are using the grant to find out what scientists think about the ethics involved when communicating with the lay public.

“The idea behind asking these questions is to see whether scientists are making assumptions that will lead to miscommunication,” Prof. Glymour said. “Are scientists failing to recognize certain kinds of biases that are standard? Some biases are simple to adjust for, if you know they are there. Some adjustments are appropriate, some aren’t.”

Prof. Glymour said that when scientists talk about their work they will use what psychologists call framing.

“Often times framing will help the public to understand what’s going on,” Prof. Glymour said. “There are appropriate ways to frame an issue but also some inappropriate ways.”

For instance, he said researchers talking about a new technology could frame their discovery in terms of scientific progress and how this development enhances our knowledge. Or, he said, they could frame it terms of fear, such as how this technology is needed because of a real or perceived danger.

“The question is whether scientists are aware of ethical restrictions on when you can frame in various ways,” he said.

Prof. Glymour said he and his colleagues hope to use this information to develop better training for scientists to help them communicate more effectively.

“Social scientists have a longstanding interest in these kinds of questions,” he said. “The physical and biological scientists have been taking it more seriously, and interest is slowly growing.”

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