- Ethics and Practice in Science Communication ed. by Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin, Michael F. Dahlstrom
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 305. Paper: isbn-13 978-0-226-49781-5, us$40.00.
I am possibly the wrong person to review this book, which may mean that I am a good person to review it. I am a scientist but am not involved in the sorts of high-profile research on climate change, stem cells, archaeological human remains, or the like that form the focus of some chapters in this volume. This month as I write (May 2018) I shall be communicating my science (paleontology) to interested amateurs by leading a group through the streets of Leiden to examine building stones and giving a Saturday afternoon talk in The Hague. Nothing contentious, it is just what I do; no speaking to the press or political messages from me.
Yet is it even anticipated that scientists will read Ethics and Practice in Science Communication? None of the authors is a scientist; this is a book by and for social scientists studying natural scientists the way I study fossil invertebrates. It is a multi-authored volume comprising a foreword and introduction and afterword, separated by three ‘parts’ including fourteen chapters. Each chapter has its own reference list, but none is top-heavy with papers from the past five years: that is, the authors chose to take the long view of their subject areas, which I welcome. At the end of the book are four pages of pocket biographies of the contributors and an index of three pages, which seems a poor balance. In this review I will consider only some, not all the chapters, mainly those that engendered a response from me.
The foreword (Holt and Braha) and introduction (Priest, Goodwin, and Dahlstrom) left me feeling pensive. Taking these contributions together, I got a distinct impression that ethics in science communication was being fingered as an area of expansion in the social sciences. As I have already [End Page 71] intimated, and despite the title, this is not a book to recommend itself to a medic, experimentalist, theoretician, or engineer. With 300 pages rising up in front of me like the Great Wall of China, I went in as Eeyore, but hoped to be converted to a Pollyanna.
Part one, ‘How Ethics Matter’ (four chapters), was a slow start to the book for me. I craved concrete examples but instead had to wade through over eighty pages of theory. Consider, for example, Goodwin (‘Effective Because Ethical: Speech Act Theory as a Framework for Scientists’ Communication’), who provides a revised insight into the old recommendation to tell your audience what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them. The approach is informative and thought-provoking, but entirely theoretical; no concrete examples from the sciences are provided. Goodwin’s focus is on scientists communicating their knowledge to non-scientists; is there no interest in scientists speaking to each other?
Thompson’s chapter (‘Communicating Science-Based Information about Risk: How Ethics Can Help’) is an able examination of what may prove to be a truly problematic conundrum. If x is assessed to be a risk, how should it be ethically communicated by a scientist so that it receives a positive response from a target audience? On the way, Thompson speculates on the possible and illustrates with the actual, such as the truly chilling Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which denied sufferers penicillin for decades; it sounds like Nazi science (41). Another pertinent example is the changing attitudes to second-hand smoke (45). But is recognising risk necessarily done to identify a potentially bad outcome (47)? This is implied by mention of the word risk in normal discourse, but surely taking a ‘good’ risk implies pursuit of a ‘good’ outcome? Thompson does a fine job in demonstrating that risk is a four-letter word.
‘Communicating Climate Change and Other Evidence-Based Controversies: Challenges to Ethics in Practice’ by Priest looks...