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Ethical guidelines for science communication informed by cultural cognition research

People often express concern to me about the normative implications of research that identifies how cultural cognition influences perception of risk and related facts and how those influences can be anticipated in structuring science communication.

I am glad they are concerned, because I am, too. If I thought that people who consume our research did not reflect on such concerns, I'd be even more worried about what I do. Knowing that others see normative issues here also means that I can share with them my own responses & see if they think I've got things right &/or can do better.

Some "Guidelines" follow. But they are not really "guidelines" in the sense of a codified set of rules or standards (I'm skeptical, in fact, that anything morally complicated can be handled with such things). Rather, they are more like prototypes that when considered together reflect what for me seems the right moral orientation to our work.  Would be happy to receive & post additional "guidelines" of this nature (along w/ any commentary their authors wish to append) & also grateful to receive feedback from anyone who takes issue with any of these or with the attitude/orientation they are meant to convey.

1. No lying. No need for elaboration here, I trust.

2. No manipulation. Likely also self-explanatory, but an example might be useful. Consider how Merck tried to shape public opinion toward Gardasil, its HPV vaccine: by using secret campaign contributions to "persuade" a southern, religious, conservative politician -- Texas Governor Rick Perry -- to issue an executive order mandating vaccination of middle school girls.

It was fine for Merck to try to assure that parents would learn about the benefits of the vaccine. It wasn't even wrong for it to enlist communicators whose cultural identities would make them credible sources of sound information

But it should have been open that it was trying to engage people this way.

Obviously, the whole immoral plan blew up in Merck's face--actually generating distrust of Gardasil among a diverse range of cultural groups. Nice work, gun-for-hire, private-industry counterparts of those who study the science of science communication in order to promote the common good!

But the strategy would have been wrong even if Merck had gotten away with it because it was managing the information environment in a way that the message recipients would themselves have resented. They were using people's reasoning, not enabling people's reasoning.

3. Use communication strategies and procedures only to promote engagement with information--not to  induce conclusions. Some people say that cultural-cognition informed communication strategies are a form of "marketing." Fine, I say. So long as what's being marketed is not a preferred position on an issue of science & policy but rather a decisional state or climate in which people who want to make decisions based on the best available scientific information are most likely to take note of and give open-minded consideration to it. 

The HPV-vaccine disaster again supplies an example. Parents of all cultural worldviews want to have the best available information on how to promote the health of their children. It would be perfectly fine, in my view, for a communicator to use cultural cognition research to identify how to promote open-minded engagement with information on the HPV vaccine.  

So if public health officials self-consciously decided to rely on a culturally diverse array of honestly motivated science communicators in order to forestall creation of any perception that positions on the vaccine were aligned asymmetrically with cultural outlooks--that would have been okay.

Also would have been okay to have resisted Merck's stupid, market-driven decision to seek fast-track approval of a girls-only vaccine and to promote inclusion of it on the schedule of mandatory school vaccinations--a marketing strategy that made cultural polarization highly likely.  Parents who love their children wouldn't want to be put into a communication environment in which their honest assessment of the health needs of their daughters or sons would be distorted by culturally antagonistic meanings unrelated to health.

4. Use strategies and procedures to promote engagement only when you have good reason to believe that engagement fits the aims and interests of information recipients. Parents trying to decide what is the best health interests of their children want to engage the information from the mindset that best promotes an accurate assessment of the evidence. But sometimes people want to engage information in a way that reliably connects them to stances that fit their cultural style. Leave them alone; so long as they aren't hurting anyone else, they are entitled to manage their personal information environment in a way that promotes contact with their own conception of the good life.

5. Don't help anyone who has ends contrary to these guidelines. Like, say, a pharmaceutical company that in its drive to make a buck is willing to manipulate people by covertly inducing individuals they trust to vouch for the effectiveness and safety of some treatment.

6.  Do help anyone -- regardless of their cultural worldview -- who is genuinely seeking to promote reflective engagement with information when such engagement fits the interests and aims of recipients. Like, say, a pharmaceutical company that wants to make a buck by openly and without manipulation satisfying the interest that people have in being able to consider scientifically valid information about the effectiveness and risks of a vaccine. 

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Reader Comments (2)


the guidelines/rules that you listed are very well detailed, and apply to what you are speaking about very well. I think that these also apply to life, business, etc. Ethics, especially in a cultural capacity, are what make us who we are, and how we view things. When we have a more open view, know where the other cultures are coming from, and are willing to adapt, provided it does go against their own code of ethics, then the potential to thrive is limitless. According to the authors of Ethics in Human Communication (2008) "A significant scholarly perspective for studying a formal organization is to conceive it as a "culture." Just as an anthropologist would study an ethnic or national culture, organizational researchers and consultants frequently describe an organization as a culture. Central components of this culture are the organization's basic values, taken-for-granted assumptions, decision-making rules, managerial styles, organizational heroes and heroines, stories of success and failure, rituals and ceremonies, sense of tradition and loyalty, and accepted topics and methods of communication." (p. 157) I thought that the guidelines/rules that you provided related to this very well, and spoke the truth. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this topic, and I just want to thank you for making this information publicly known.

Laura Henning

Undergraduate Student

Drury University

Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S., Whedbee, K.E., (2008) Ethics in Human Communication, (6th Ed.) Long Grove, Ill. Waveland Press

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Henning

@Laura: Thank you for the encouraging feedback & for the very pertinent & interesting reference; I'm requesting it from my university library right now! Did you encounter the Johannesen et al. book in a course? If so, what was it?

March 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

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