Science, Communication, Ethics

I once wrote about a character in a piece of film noir fiction that “her mind bounced around her skull like a poorly shot billiard ball”. I am feeling a bit like that this afternoon, which is why I looked up the quote, but I realise now that it would be more fitting to say that it’s my thoughts bouncing around, in the plural, like so many multi-coloured orbs. And, unfortunately, the thoughts related to this blog post are being particularly hard to pin down. (Have you ever tried to pin a billiard ball to anything? Writing as someone who once went to a party dressed as a poorly lit pool table: I don’t recommend it.)

Anyway, so that these thoughts don’t just disappear, I decided I would at least link to some of the articles that prompted them. I can’t promise that they form a coherent whole, but perhaps you will be able to make sense of them, roughly, under the umbrella of Science Communication Ethics. Commas optional.

Paul Bloom has written this article in The New Yorker, “The Baby in the Well: the case against empathy”. It’s much more nuanced than the subtitle might suggest, and the only thing that niggled at me as I read it was the way it sometimes subtly implied that reason is always, usually, going to lead to the best moral choices. Peter Singer’s talk on effective altruism is related, and if you feel inspired here are several resources for living a more charitable life.

In some ways, the two discussions are about rationality vs irrationality, and how to deal with the quirks of intuition, emotion, or other, that go along with being human. Our foibles have lead some people to have a rather cynical view of the scientific endeavour (and here’s someone writing quite unhappily about how  p-values let us down), but I think this article by Cordelia Fine provides a nice antidote to any hopelessness a young scientist may experience. That said, there seems to be reason to be concerned about the publication process. “Very little in science is fundamentally novel”, writes the author of that article, and I’m reminded of this quote:

“There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter.”

- Prokhor Zakharov, Alpha Centauri

Mhm, I know that feeling.

Changing tack, sort of, there’s this article on science communication as it is (or isn’t) related changing people’s behaviour – instead of altruism, the focus is on climate change, but in some ways it amounts to the same thing. Suddenly, I’m reminded of a set of talks I went to at SASP, which were all about blood donation. Those people had great outcome measures: litres of blood (if you’ll allow me the paraphrase).

And, another of the things that was so great about those talks, was perhaps that there is nothing controversial about finding interventions that increase the likelihood that people will donate blood. We all agree that that’s a good thing. What’s sometimes harder to deal with, is when results come out as somewhat unsavoury, as in the recent Richwine controversy. The link is to a blog post about how to best deal with those potentially un-PC results, and – spoiler alert – the answer is not to simply deny the empirical evidence. If you’re concerned about race and IQ, read this instead. (And,  Brian D. Earp’s post from last year about whether it’s possible to be ‘gay by choice’ is still very relevant.)

There is more to be said about this, I’m sure, but it will have to wait until another day. Perhaps after Wednesday, when I am going to a talk about personal and political ethics as part of the Melbourne Conversations. Come along, and we can talk about it over wine (and a game of pool, perhaps?) afterwards!


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One response to “Science, Communication, Ethics

  1. Pingback: Linkie-dink | War and Words·

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