The Intersection

Scientist Foot-Shooting

In my new talk, I strongly emphasize that scientists need to be strategically aware of how they are communicating their knowledge and their results in politically contentious areas. If they’re not careful, not only might they communicate badly–but what they say might actually backfire.

It’ hard to think of a better case study than the recent controversy over the latest work by the biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology. ACT’s scientists published a study in Nature about deriving pluripotent stem cell lines from single cells taken from an embryo, a result touted as “an approach that does not harm embryos.” Only, in the actual experiment, many embryos were destroyed–a fact not lost on opponents of embryonic stem cell research.

Over at Blog.Bioethics.Net, Glenn McGee rightly excoriates ACT, and notes how many right wing tropes they have played directly into:

Believe it or not I was working on a column about the dangers of well-intentioned but hype-seeking stem cell researchers – finished it actually – before the Advanced Cell Technology people decided that the correct way to please the right to life crowd was to take IVF embryos (all together now, chant with the predictable pro-life response: “IVF=murder”) that have been put through genetic diagnosis (“PGD=eugenics”) and grow their cells in a way that might or might not yield good stem cell colonies but likely would produce at least a few totipotent cells as a byproduct (“cloning is evil”).

To make sure the experiment aimed at pleasing pro-life would actually work, they tried it on 16 embryos first, then killed them all (Inside the mind of Richard Doerflinger: “please, please let these guys stay in the paper just one more day…”) and justified the fact that none of the people who were supposed to love their experiment actually did by calling them (Lanza’s words) “irrational” (“scientist=athiest or anti-catholic”).

If there is a school to teach scientists how to screw up the pursuit of PR, ACT has the professors on retainer.

We have a long, long way to go, folks….

Comments

  1. #1 Dano
    September 11, 2006

    I strongly emphasize that scientists need to be strategically aware of how they are communicating their knowledge and their results in politically contentious areas. If they’re not careful, not only might they communicate badly–but what they say might actually backfire.

    This is true to a point, Chris, but what about results that are now neutral but become contentious in the future? How do scientists convey their results in this case?

    You see what I’m getting at here: one standard, contentious or no.

    Best,

    D

  2. #2 Dark Tent
    September 11, 2006

    Part of the problem is that the words scientists use often have a significantly different (much less precise) meaning in the common lingo.

    A prime example of this is the term “uncertainty” which scientists equate with the error of a measurement — which may actually be very small. NO matter how small the error, scientists nonetheless speak about the uncertainty, because it is an inherent part of the measurement process itself.

    On the other hand, the general public hears the word “uncertainty” and thinks “not enough information to make a judgement about what should be done” (ie, “More research is required”), quite irrespective of the magnitude of the uncertainty.

    The public knows (and cares) little about “probabilities”, “confidence levels”, “significant digits” and the other scientific means for quantifying uncertainty, so they focus on the word “uncertainty” in isolation from those qunatifiers.

    The oil industry and Bush administration have been particularly adept at exploiting the “uncertainties associated with climate science” to create uncertainty in the mind of the pubblic about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

  3. #3 SLC
    September 11, 2006

    An outstanding example of this is the bruhaha currently taking place over at PZs’ blog concerning a presentation by biologist Ken Miller. PZ, among others jumped all over Miller, before having listened to a recording of his presentation. PZ and other Miller critics seem to have forgotten that Miller is one of the good guys.

  4. #4 RickD
    September 11, 2006

    From the Post article, it appears that the fault lies not with ACT but rather with Nature, whose press release was misleading about whether embryos were killed in the process.

    My take-home lesson here would be: don’t bother to buy into the right-wing characterization that claims that IVF embryos are human beings. Make a decsion and stick to it. What ACT is doing is trying to pander to the “embryos=babies” crowd, but they are themselves not believers in this credo, as is witnessed by the fact that they were quite happy to destroy the nascent embryos to test the procedure as thoroughly as possible.

    Boo-hoo, ACT “played into right-wing tropes”. I dispute the notion that this should be a primary focus of biological research. The right wing is not pursuing ethics, they are pursuing power. If you accede to their demands, they will just move the line again. They are not really interested in exactly where researchers stand, they just want to feel empowered by the act of getting scientists to adjust their research according to their (the right-to-lifers) demands.

    It’s just a game.

    I agree with Glen – pandering to neocons is a pointless exercise.

  5. #5 Fred Bortz
    September 11, 2006

    I disagree with McGee’s tone even as I agree with the point he is making about the way scientists speak about their work.

    The fact is, we need to respect the religious and ethical sensibilities of sincere people who understand the science and represent the research and reproductive technologies fairly, but have objections to them on moral grounds. For them, IVF is unacceptable because it inevitably leads to destroying viable embryos. That’s a respectable moral position, even if you disagree with it. McGee’s tone inappropriately insults people who hold that stance.

    Their position is very different from those who cynically misrepresent the science to gain political advantage, as Chris describes in The Republican War on Science.

    In one published version of my review of After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield, I describe ‘an ethical tin ear in his advocacy of “Designer Babies”.’

    The long version of my review doesn’t use those words but says instead: Wilmut has “serious distortions in his crystal ball” as far as ethical considerations are concerned.

    Chris, do you see Wilmut as a foot-shooter here?

    See http://www.scienceshelf.com/AfterDolly.htm for the long version of my review.

  6. #6 etbnc
    September 11, 2006

    Words matter.

    Audience matters.

    Thanks for this reminder, Chris.

    -

  7. #7 Scooter
    September 12, 2006

    Part of the problem is that the words scientists use often have a significantly different (much less precise) meaning in the common lingo.

    A prime example of this is the term “uncertainty” which scientists equate with the error of a measurement — which may actually be very small. NO matter how small the error, scientists nonetheless speak about the uncertainty, because it is an inherent part of the measurement process itself.

    On the other hand, the general public hears the word “uncertainty” and thinks “not enough information to make a judgement about what should be done” (ie, “More research is required”), quite irrespective of the magnitude of the uncertainty.

    The public knows (and cares) little about “probabilities”, “confidence levels”, “significant digits” and the other scientific means for quantifying uncertainty, so they focus on the word “uncertainty” in isolation from those qunatifiers.

    I couldn’t agree more. All too often emic and etic language are interchanged by journalists, which might be further widening the chasm that some are convinced already exists between the science community and the general public.

  8. #8 JMG
    September 12, 2006

    The point about the different meaning of “uncertainty” between general and scientific usage is an excellent one. Sort of another twist on Lakoff’s framing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lakoff

    An excellent resource for journalists is:

    FacsNet at http://www.facsnet.org/

    Under its “News and Numbers” section http://www.facsnet.org/tools/ref_tutor/newsandnumbers/index.php3

    is The Certainty of Uncertainty
    http://www.facsnet.org/tools/ref_tutor/newsandnumbers/lessthree.php3

    The “Epidemiology for Journalists” section also addresses some of these conceptual terminology issues:
    http://www.facsnet.org/tools/ref_tutor/epidem/index.php3

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