What makes science communication moral? Science communication and associated activities such as public engagement with science, citizen science, and so forth, are often presented as having a special moral role to play in society. Scientific knowledge is presented as a special kind of knowledge that is especially important to be made public. This view sits behind many of our national initiatives and strategies for greater public understanding of science. But perhaps this headlong dash into the public dissemination of knowledge is not such a desirable move. Perhaps, we should heed Shelley’s warning: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge”.
If the acquisition of knowledge isn’t inherently good and desirable, then what makes science communication moral? And what might it mean for science communicators to act ethically?
In this presentation, I question the often-stated underlying assumption that more knowledge is inherently better than less knowledge. I present a number of factors that affect the moral valence of communicating knowledge, especially science communication, and question the ethical limits of science communication acts. Taking this a step further, I consider underlying normative frames for science communication by looking at the various ways we have tried to ensure ethical practice in science communication, from the ethical norms such as journalistic and communication ethics, to policy moves such as responsible research and innovation. Noting these norms and practices can, at time, pull in opposite and contradictory directions, and can also create their own ethical challenges, I offer an alternative model of ethical norms for science communication as a way to help us think through these issues.
Fabien Medvecky is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication and is the president of the Science Communicator’s Association of New Zealand. With a background in philosophy and economics, his research sits at the intersection between science communication, science policy, economic theory and ethical theory with a focus on the tension between the objective aims of science and the value-driven reality of decision-making. He previously lectured at the University of Queensland’s program in science communication.