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The Press, Public Debate and the Public Understanding of Ethics

27 July 2009
By Ben Jones
BioNews Volunteer
Appeared in BioNews 518
Many of the developments in the biosciences reported on in BioNews involve novel moral issues or further complicate existing ethical debates. While concerns about the efficacy or safety of a new therapy inevitably lead to calls for further action within the scientific community - more research, bigger studies, better analysis - ethical worries instead result in calls for non-specialist external validation, consultation exercises, public debate and engagement. While the public are put in the passive role of spectator when scientific developments are dealt with in public, when it comes to handling tricky ethical issues they are instead presumed to have a substantial competency to actively debate the relevant issues as a means of achieving some kind of robust, democratic, consensus.

However, it seems increasingly clear from the remarkably limited and, often, orchestrated responses that are elicited by expensive and well-publicised consultations and public engagement exercises that broad and inclusive public debate is far from being achieved. Speaking in general terms, one of the principle bars to public engagement with scientific matters is the inability, or unwillingness, of certain factions of the press to accurately, cogently and appropriately communicate scientific developments to the public. A growing portion of the academic literature on the public understanding of science has exposed the deceptive, inaccurate and sensationalist ‘churnalism' that predominates in much of the modern commercially driven press. Fortunately awareness of such journalistic failures in science reporting is on the up, and it is heartening that the paperback edition of Dr Ben Goldacre's ‘Bad Science' (a no-nonsense primer in scientific method built around a systematic debunking of scientific misinformation in the public eye) is back in the best-sellers list.

Dr Goldacre's central thesis is that most of what is being done by scientists is capable of being expressed in a way that the majority of the public is readily able to understand and that the failure lies with certain journalists indulging damaging stereotypes about science including, most pertinently, that it is impenetrably complicated and entirely beyond the reach of non-specialists. It is this characterisation of science as inaccessible and not any inherent complexity of the science itself that frequently serves to alienate the public.

When it comes to assessing scientific developments with an ethical dimension the press frequently ensures that the public is doubly vexed. While it would be inaccurate and unfair to suggest that no newspaper addresses ethical questions with discussion of ethics, they still represent a minority of an overall coverage characterised by vague human interest pieces. The limited philosophical articles are also the preserve of a very limited section of the daily press and these pieces are vastly outnumbered by non-specialist opinion pieces taken from opposite extremes of the issue (the recent media furore over creating human sperm from stem cells in the laboratory provides several examples of this). Such coverage is illustrated with stark arguments drawn exclusively from the periphery of the issue. While these positions are clearly part of the discourse as a whole it is clearly counterproductive to give such irreconcilable positions exclusive coverage. Moderate views and arguments based on compromise are often crowded out.

A public debate cannot be informed by such thin and tumultuous discourse and thus it comes as no surprise that thousands of column inches fail to illicit involvement from the public. The recent Department of Health consultation on sperm and egg storage, licensing of IVF clinics and disclosure of donor information, for example, drew only 178 responses and of these 31 were from organisations with a pre-existing interest and more than a hundred were from the supporters of a group called ‘Christian Concern for Our Nation.' The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 received a vast amount of coverage in the press and yet still this consultation exercise on three matters of public interest yielded less than 50 independent responses from interested individuals.

Thus inaccurate or hyperbolic science reporting deprives the readership not just of scientific knowledge but also of constructive ethical argument. In the same way that the failure to adequately report on science prevents members of the public from developing an interest or opinions on scientific progress, failure to responsibly report on ethical matters depletes the ‘‘public sphere'' of constructive opinion. I draw attention to the phrase ‘‘public sphere'' because by preventing readers from developing an interest in scientific issues and by preventing them from being exposed to moderate ethical arguments they are effectively destroying the public space within which any large-scale discourse on bioethics can take place. By casting science as obscure the media has made science obscure and by presenting ethical debate as irresolvable conflicting they have made it inaccessible.

Though the academic literature on public understanding of science has included commentary on the coverage of ethical matters there is no devoted literature to the public understanding of ethics. Given that decisions on ethics are seen by our modern democratic government as to be a matter within the public's competence it is important that further work be put into understanding and improving the way in which ethical debates are presented to the public.

While a wider awareness of the inadequacy of scientific communication appears to be developing, remedying this is only one step on the way to involving the public in the defining ethical decisions of our time. The existence of channels such as BioNews, through which expert ethical coverage can be readily accessed, provide that the public space for debate is kept at least partially open and it is to be hoped that improved accessibility of this information via the internet will ensure that at least existing interested parties are able to access reasoned opinion on bioethical matters. However, only through wider public engagement will any great percentage of the population be sufficiently enfranchised to contribute and until the mass media acts responsibly in providing a measured and informative approach to ethical issues the vast majority of the population will continue to be left out of the ethical discussions to which they are superficially invited to contribute. Unless steps are taken to provide the wider public with accurate, informed and moderate coverage, the grand notion of ‘public debate' will continue to be one without substance.

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