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Editorial: Safety and conscience

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Editorial: Safety and conscience. The Exchange 17(3):2, 11–12.

"Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right."—Martin Luther King, Jr.

The popular view of scientific communication, even among practitioners who should know better, is that it's a fairly safe, politic, popular, and "right" field of activity. After all, science is objective and deals with expanding human knowledge, so it must satisfy all of these criteria, right? But none of these assumptions is necessarily correct. Indeed, with the increasing politicization and marginalization of science, it seems these assumptions are wrong more often than not.

Take "safe", for instance. Though few of us have to worry about goons hired by special interests coming to break our typing fingers because of something we wrote, we occasionally hear of stories such as that of Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident after reporting wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plant (which produced plutonium pellets for nuclear reactors). Was Silkwood murdered to silence her? Many years later, there's no way to know for sure, but it's sobering to think that such things aren't beyond the realm of possibility. Science often challenges the status quo when researchers discover something new that changes our operating assumptions, and those who benefit from the status quo rarely sit quietly by and let their positions be undermined. Rachel Carson, for example, faced substantial pressure from the American chemical industry after the publication of Silent Spring. The pressure was both overt, as in the case of threatened lawsuits from the Velsicol Chemical Company, and covert, as in the rapid actions of lobbyists, many of whom acted anonymously. And as anyone who's followed the debate over climate change knows, those who have a stake in keeping us burning oil and coal fight dirty when it comes to casting doubt on the credibility of those who are trying to raise public awareness of this serious problem.

Is science necessarily "politic" (i.e., prudent and diplomatic)? Not necessarily. Scientists are trained to come straight out with their opinion of the truth rather than sugarcoating an unpleasant fact or using waffle words, and those of us who work with them are strongly encouraged to follow suit. Unfortunately, as anyone who's ever had a relationship with another person (successful or otherwise) knows, it's not always possible to state the truth without offending someone—sometimes gravely. As communicators, we seek ways to avoid giving offense through the truths we report, both because it's ethical to avoid hurting someone unnecessarily and because of expediency: if you offend someone, you may eliminate the possibility of any subsequent dialogue. It's sometimes difficult to find a way to solve a problem without shaming or offending anyone, but that doesn't relieve us of the responsibility to try.

Science often isn't popular either. Except when we're writing within the science community, most people aren't particularly interested in science these days, and the lack of interest rises dramatically whenever we write about anything scary or that requires action on the part of the reader. The debate over climate change and the need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels arises as much because of discomfort over the need to change as it does from doubt over the basic science. Most people would happily adopt electric cars and alternative forms of energy such as solar and wind power if doing so would entail no disruption in their lives. But these alternatives are expensive, and particularly in the current economic climate, money isn't as abundant as it used to be. Asking people to sacrifice something in exchange for reducing a risk (i.e., severe adverse consequences from climate change) that will not immediately affect them and that they can therefore easily deny will never be popular, no matter how persuasively we make the case for this sacrifice. In the face of an unpopular suggestion for change, it can be difficult indeed for us to present our truths in a way that will be heard and that will motivate necessary change.

Last but not least, science is not necessarily "right"—at least, not in the sense that it is inherently ethical. Scientists like to think of their work as ethically neutral, and there's some justice in that opinion. The same nuclear science that can cure cancer through radiation therapy can also lead to the creation of nuclear bombs, and the difference between which of these two paths a scientist or society takes is a deeply personal decision, not one that depends on the inherent nature of the science. But critics of this philosophy ask, with equal justice, whether it's ethical to study something that clearly has a high potential for abuse. There are so many safer areas of ignorance that could be explored, and so many of these have fewer ethical considerations, that it becomes difficult to justify research whose results are likely to be abused.

From the communicator's perspective, we must always ask ourselves whether the context for our communication is safe, politic, and popular. Most of the time, it is not, at least to some degree for each of these criteria. And the further we move from a clear yes answer to any of these questions, the more we must delve into the murky ethical waters of whether the science and what we must say about it are "right". If not, we face a difficult decision about whether and how to communicate. Sometimes our safety or that of our family may suggest that we take the safer path of silence. Sometimes the security of our employment may require us to find a more politic way to communicate than speaking the unadorned truth. Sometimes we cannot speak unpopular truths simply because we can find no audience willing to listen, possibly because there's no way to make those truths palatable. And sometimes we must speak the truth, as we see it, to satisfy the urgings of our conscience, even when that truth is neither safe, politic, nor popular. The fact that it's "right" is all the justification we need.

Some ethicists still like to claim that there are ethical absolutes, and that there are clear criteria for all such decisions. Those of us who have studied or lived in other cultures aren't so certain. It's easy to err by embracing cultural relativism too strongly, and thereby believing that right and wrong can only be defined in the context of the culture in which an action occurs. It's equally easy to err by assuming that our culture's truths are universal. The truth in any situation will generally lie somewhere between the ethical absolutes proposed by members of one culture and the ethical absolutes proposed by members of another culture. Each of us must decide, hopefully based on education about the issues and deep reflection, where the balance point lies.

I can provide no simple guidelines on how to make this decision; any such guidelines would vary slightly to drastically depending on whether you're Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or a member of any of any of the world's many other religions. All I can do is to urge you to think about your work as a communicator and try to determine whether it is safe, politic, popular, or right, and make an informed decision on the right balance among these criteria. Your ethical responsibility is to consider the points I've raised in this essay and decide; whatever your decision, it's likely to be more ethical than simply ignoring these issues.

This is my last editorial for this newsletter, after 11 years on the job. One might be tempted to read something into my choice of epigraph and subject for this final editorial, but one would be wrong to do so. I'm leaving because I've devoted a great many hours to the newsletter over the years, and now it's time to devote some of that time to my own, long-delayed, personal projects. When you have an idle moment, visit me online at my Web site or blog to see what I've been up to.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved