The "Ethics" of Framing Science

Last night, Matt Nisbet posted a section from the first draft of a new book chapter he's working on. In this particular chapter, he says he's trying to "lay out a detailed ethical framework" for science communications. At least in theory, that's an interesting concept. Are there ethical responsibilities involved in communicating science?

The material that Matt self-quotes is a bit light when it comes to explaining just why we should think there are ethical responsibilities involved in science communication. About the closest he comes is this brief passage:

Surveys indicate that Americans strongly believe in the promise of science to improve life, deeply admire scientists, and hold science in higher esteem than almost any other institution. Scientists therefore enjoy tremendous communication capital...

I don't have the philosophical background or ethical expertise of some ScienceBloggers, but that certainly doesn't strike me as the worst reason to think that science communication involves certain ethical obligations. Science is a critical part of modern life. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that our entire current standard of living depends on science. Despite this, relatively few people have more than the most basic understanding of science (if that). I think that both the public's trust of scientists and the public's dependence on science entail some ethical responsibilities. If nothing else, it's important to make sure that the trust is not abused.

Let's take a look at what ethical responsibilities Matt thinks we have as scientists and communicators of science. He identifies four "ethical imperatives":

  • dialogue should be a focus of science communication efforts, rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approaches.
  • scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action
  • accuracy is a third ethical imperative
  • avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains

Nisbet elected to simply cut and paste the introduction to his ethics chapter, and his introduction does not actually present any reasons that any of those items should be considered to be some sort of "ethical imperative". I can only hope that the full version of this book chapter contains more that simply the bald assertion that those four points are, in fact, the ethical way to proceed. It's possible - at least in theory - that my opinion will change after I hear Nisbet's justifications for these points, but as of now I don't think all of the points are correct.

Before I go on, I should point out that it hasn't escaped my attention that there seems to be just a bit of a correlation between Nisbet's asserted "ethical imperatives" and the positions he's advocated when he's argued that various people and groups are communicating poorly. My disagreement with some of the "ethical" positions that he's laid out does not stem from a suspicion that the his new focus on the "ethics" of communication is at least in part an attempt to frame some of his opponents as not merely being wrong, but actually bad. It stems purely from my opinion of the merits of his positions.

Let me look at the positions one at a time:


I believe that it's a good idea to engage in dialogue as much as possible, but I'm not sure why this would be an ethical imperative. Of course, it's difficult for me to be sure about this, since it's not entirely clear what Matt thinks "dialogue" actually entails.

If "dialogue" can come about simply through listening and responding to the questions that people have about scientific issues, I think there is an ethical responsibility. In cases where scientific findings will potentially have an impact on people's day to day lives, I think that a basic respect for people's right to be involved in deciding how to address concerns that affect them demands that scientists do as much as possible to ensure that people have the best possible understanding about what's happening. I'm just not sure that's really dialogue.

If "dialogue" consists of debating science facts with non-scientists, or responding to every assertion that scientists are completely wrong about the underlying science, then I do not see any sort of ethical imperative. It's important to be clear about what we know and what we don't, and we should make sure that we're clear about cases where there are legitimate differences of opinion. In cases where the science is clear, I do not see how we're ethically obligated to sit down and calmly discuss the matter with people who insist that the science is not clear.

Values versus Facts:

This is a case where I agree with Nisbet. I believe that scientists and communicators of science have a duty to remember that science alone cannot tell us what we should do. It may, for example, be a fact that our actions are causing the temperature of the planet to rise. It may also be a fact that the rise in temperatures will cause some areas of the planet to become much less hospitable than they already are. Taken together, these two facts only require us to take action if we accept the values judgement that these consequences are bad, and that we have a responsibility to avoid them if we possibly can.

The thing is, I don't think this is an area where the advocates for good science use in policy have been having problems. As I've said before, I think that a great deal of the misuse of science that's gone on in public policy in the recent past has been inspired by people's desire to evade the values question entirely. If cigarettes do not cause disease, there's no need to even discuss regulation. If we're not warming the planet, we don't need to think about whether we should stop doing things that cause this.


This one's hard to argue against. I think that scientists do have an ethical responsibility to be as accurate as possible when communicating science to the public. But I think it's also important to make sure that we don't confuse "accuracy" with "precision". Presenting every little nuance in every aspect of every question is a sure way to confuse people.

Avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains:

Nisbet's final "ethical imperative" is the one I've got the largest problem with - particularly since he goes on in the same post to use his new "ethical" frame to stereotype and denigrate the "New Atheists".

We certainly should not go out of our way to be mean to people for whatever reason, but it's not always going to be possible to completely avoid it. Speaking purely from the perspective of science, it is absolutely absurd to argue that the planet we live on is 10,000 years old. We may not have pinned the origin of the Earth down to the second, but we're not off by the five orders of magnitude that the 10k belief would suggest. I have no intention of walking into someone's church and yelling "you're wrong" at the top of my lungs, but when someone goes to the school board to demand that the 10k belief be taught or somehow respected in science classes, I am under no ethical obligation to show any particular respect to that view, even though those who hold it will likely see my objections as an attack on their beliefs (and by extension on their group).

I'm certainly don't see how I'm ethically obligated to refrain from laughing at geocentrists.

When it comes to "partisan or electoral gains", I am in complete disagreement with Matt. I think that it is extremely important to do everything possible to ensure that science is used well in policy making. In cases where politicians or political parties demonstrate a disregard for science, I think it's important to oppose them. This is true regardless of what party that politician belongs to.

Politicians who are unwilling to even recognize the existence of a firm scientific consensus on issues that have the potential to impact every human being on the planet are unfit to serve. Not only do I not have an ethical obligation to refrain from saying this, I believe I have an ethical obligation to say it.

Nisbet clearly posted his latest efforts in an attempt to spark some discussion. It will be interesting to see what (if any) response he has. If nothing else, it will demonstrate his own level of ethical commitment to the principle of discourse.

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With respect to Nisbet's wording is

scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action

I don't agree with that. The "always emphasize" ignores the first imperative, which is to get the fucking facts right. The so-called "culture war" has been characterized by a good deal of distortion of the actual facts. For a recent example, consider the Pope's recent pronouncement on the effects of condom usage on the transmission of AIDS. There the Pope's values led to a blatant misrepresentation of the facts.

So any formulation of ethical principles must first insist that the facts be accurately represented.

Gack. Screwed up the C&P. I lost the short paragraph which said "Listing accuracy third misplaces the emphasis. Accuracy is first, not third."

You say:

Nisbet's final "ethical imperative" is the one I've got the largest problem with - particularly since he goes on in the same post to use his new "ethical" frame to stereotype and denigrate the "New Atheists".

I'm with you there - Nisbet seems to be gloriously non-self-aware. He slags off a whole swathe of people for, er, slagging off other people. It seems in his mind, his own actions are acceptable because his motives are pure, while others' actions are unacceptable because their motives do not have the Nisbet Seal of Approval. A sort of "just war" doctrine.

Nisbet criticises others for commenting outside their own fields, while doing exactly that himself. Again, with pure motives!

And he babbles on about engaging in a dialogue while he proclaims what is good and what is ethical with no attempt at debate or dialogue. He talks, but apparently only listens to his friends and heros.

Give him ten years, and you might find him at the Discovery Institute!

Nisbet reminds me of the plethora of self proclaimed social media "experts" who gush about "it's a new paradigm, there are no rules! All the rules other people are telling you about are worthless! Here are *my* rules for social media that you *have* to follow if you don't want to be a pathetic loser."

Salespeople, which is what he is, peg my insto-distrust-ometer and have a high barrier to climb if they want to dial it down. Oh look, I've denigrated a whole class of people, I must be unethical.

I agree with your analysis of Nisbet's blithering, but I wonder if it is really worth so much time and effort across multiple blogs doing so. As far as I can tell, no one takes him seriously anyway.

Sam C:

I'm with you there - Nisbet seems to be gloriously non-self-aware.

No! Couldn't be!

1. Emphasize dialogue;

Where by "dialogue" we mean "demonization of those who disagree with us".

2. be explicit about values;

For example, by proclaiming in all capital letters, "ATHEISM IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE". The capital letters really help drown out the objections raised by commenters and other bloggers.

3. maintain accuracy;

For example, by relying on a doctrinaire Catholic website for information about what happened when PZ Myers was expelled from the screening of Expelled, or by bad-mouthing John Allen Paulos' Irreligion without having read it.

4. avoid denigrating social groups or using for partisan gain.

Of course, the "New Atheist Noise Machine" is not a social group.

(Shamelessly cross-posted from Greg Laden's place.)

I strongly disagree with this for another reason:

scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action

Making value-based judgements and setting policy are NOT the realm of either science of journalism. Values and policy should certain take proper account of the relevant science, but that's not an ethical imperative on scientists. It's an ethical imperative on the people who make value judgements and set policy.

Of course, a scientist can choose to emphasize what he sees as the proper connection between a given set of scientific findings and any associated values and policies. But in doing that, he'd be acting as a citizen or a policy maker, not as a scientist.

Suggesting that scientists have a particular ethical imperative to communicate those connections implies that scientists are responsible for making those connections. That's just wrong, and it's incredibly damaging to suggest it.

I gave up on Nisbet long ago. The following sign from a recent PZ Myers post shows an Arkansas church sign proudly proclaiming "reason is the greatest enemy faith has". You can't change that type of mentality by reframing science. You have to accept that there is clear disconnect between science and religious fundamentalism and that only side has facts to back up their arguments.…

Blake Stacey:

Of course, the "New Atheist Noise Machine" is not a social group.

"New Atheist Noise Machine" would, however, make an excellent name for a techno-punk band.

Of course, a scientist can choose to emphasize what he sees as the proper connection between a given set of scientific findings and any associated values and policies. But in doing that, he'd be acting as a citizen or a policy maker, not as a scientist.

Suggesting that scientists have a particular ethical imperative to communicate those connections implies that scientists are responsible for making those connections. That's just wrong, and it's incredibly damaging to suggest it.

Posted by: qetzal | March 30, 2009 2:10 PM

Ok -- first this is not an attack

But keeping in mind that I'm Mike's Mom - a woman who tried to avoid every science class possible, and who is a community organizer, could you explain why this is so? I honestly don't get this part of the argument.

Is this about scientists not making linkages to specific policy because it might label them biased and could put their work in doubt ?? I kinda get that.

But what about the larger policy issue of just taking science seriously, of trying to get policy makers to understand the need to develop policy based on science rather than faith ?

How would that be damaging or wrong ?? Can you not be a citizen and scientist at the same time?

If you (collectively) don't educate people on the need to work from scientist who will?

And again -- not an attack just some questions from a non scientist who would not understand the importance of scientist if her son hadn't become one.

QA's Mom,

Certainly one can be a citizen and a scientist. That was what I meant in the first paragraph of mine that you quoted.

The problem is that Nisbet claims that scientists have a specific ethical obligation to explain values and policies. That's wrong because making value judgements and setting policies is not part of science. A scientist's obligation as a scientist is to provide the most accurate facts that might be relevant to judgements and policies, and to do his best to communicate those facts in an understandable way.

Let me put it another way. Being a scientist does not give one any special expertise in making value judgements or setting policy. But saying that scientists are ethically obligated to explain values and policies implies otherwise. As if scientists (and science) are in a privileged position to say what judgements and policies are empirically correct. I'm a scientist myself, and as much as I might wish that were true, it's not.

Take global warming, for example. Science tells us what the current facts are, and provides predictions of what's likely to happen in the future under different scenarios. Science does not tell us what we "should" do about it. A climatologist's ethical obligation is to convey the facts and predictions as accurately as she can. It's not part of her ethical obligation as a scientist to communicate what we should do. She has every right to express her opinions on the values and policies she supports based on those facts, but then she does so as a citizen.

There's too much distrust of science and scientists as it is. Implying that science can tell us what we should value and what policies are right will make that distrust worse, not better.

To give another example to qetzal's point, let's say that scientific studies were done that show that a policy that results in widespread condom use a) prevents hiv transmission by 90%, but b)increases the % of people having sex in the by 50% (these are made up obviously, but studies could be done to find out what these %'s are). So then from that and some extra numbers for the amount of people getting infected by hiv and the total population, you can figure out, if you enacted this policy, how many people wouldn't get hiv and how many more people would be having sex.

That's the science part, and as a scientist this is what you should have an ethical obligation to explain to people. However the judgment as to whether you'd take the tradeoff of x less people not getting hiv vs. y more people having sex is a personal value judgment - if you believe that people having sex is about as bad as them getting hiv you might easily decide that the policy is not worth enacting. In principle a scientist would have no special authority on the issue.

Of course in practice it very rarely works nicely like that - i.e. the pope in my example has apparently decided that my 90% is actually much lower, or the 50% for having more sex is much higher, to the point where having widespread condoms would increase both the number of people getting hiv and having the ones having sex. And here, he's making more then just a value judgment - he's claiming that he knows what will happen, i.e. that he's done the science. Which is why any scientist that has in fact done such studies has an ethical obligation to come out and point out that the pope is a lying SOB - unless he's right of course.

And this is where Nisbett gets it so wrong - in almost all such cases of the "culture war", the other side doesn't just have a different set of values, where we can have an honest disagreement over the value of human life vs. not having sex, or the value of maintaining the climate as is, vs the cost of changing emissions. Most of the time, they are flat out lying about the science. And that's why it's a war on science.


You're not the only person who seems to have read Nisbet as saying that scientists are ethically obligated to talk about values judgments, but I'm not sure that's what he meant. I read that as a statement that scientists/science communicators are ethically obligated to clearly distinguish factual statements from values statements. (IOW, "Here's what the science is on this. If we want X to happen, this is what we need to do. This is why I personally think it would be good to get X to happen" instead of "The science says we need to do x.")

Upon further reflection, though, your reading might be the right one. If that's the case, I don't know why expressing science in terms of values would be an ethical imperative. A good idea in certain circumstances, yes, but ethically required? Not so much.

I think I see what qetzal's saying, and I basically agree with it. It's important for scientists to be good citizens, and to get involved in policy, but it's also important to distinguish fact from opinion - and that's not always easy.

I think that it's good for scientists to be advocates for positions that they care and are knowledgeable about. I think we need more scientists to be advocates, but not everyone in science has the inclination or temperament to be both a responsible advocate and a responsible scientist simultaneously.

@ Coriolis,

Thanks for the excellent example of the point I was trying (inelegantly) to make!

@ Mike,

I also wondered if I was misreading Nisbet's meaning. But if he really meant that scientists are ethically obligated not to conflate empirical facts with values and policies, why didn't he say that?

Either he meant what he wrote, in which case he's just wrong, or he meant something else, in which case he communicated poorly. Neither option is very flattering for a professor specializing in communication of science.

My main problem with the whole 'framing science' idea can be summed up as: People Aren't Stupid. If science claims X, X implies not-Y, and people have Y as a deeply held belief, they are going to figure out that science claims not-Y. Some are going to be offended by that claim. No amount of framing is going to fix that disagreement because its an argument over content. Radiometric dating implies an old earth. If your deeply held religious identity rests on the concept of a young earth, the tone of voice and choice of words a scientist uses will have little to do with your reaction to that claim.

A couple of other problems: insofar as 'framing' means 'trying to relay X without letting people know it implies not-Y', framing is deceptive and therefore unethical. Agreed, it may be rude to scream not-Y from the rooftops, but no scientist should shy away from discussing the clear implications of their research. If someone asks, 'does X mean not-Y?' you say yes. You don't dissemble out of concern for their feelings. Same example - radiometric dating implies an old earth. Prevaricating about that point because your student is a YECist is unethical.

The third problem I have with the framing concept is that rests on the assumption that conflicts between religion and science are necessarily bad, when in fact such conflicts can indicate a very healthy society. Such conflicts mean religions remain free to express empirical beliefs even when such claims conflict with the beliefs of the majority or the government. Rather than trying to convince people that there is no conflict, we should be telling them that we're damn proud to live in a country that allows such conflicts. To beat on my example one more time - would you really want to live in a country that did not allow religions to make claims as to the age of the earth? Or one that redefined "religion" to exclude such claims?