Can scientists ethically present misleading information

Post by Taylor Haddock

As scientists, we not only conduct research and begin to understand the world around us, but we also carry a responsibility to convey these findings to others. It’s important for everyone, including non-scientists, to understand science. However, non-scientists often misinterpret or fail to understand scientific concepts which can lead to improper handling of scientific issues. This problem is due to scientists’ lack of effective communication (Brownell et al., 2013)

A person points toward a light bub, and from their head, a two-way road splits toward chemistry equipment (one branch) and people dancing (other branch).
           The Fight for Recognition: Given two options, someone is more likely to choose the path that is socially accepted by their community and follows their existing beliefs than the seemingly dull and confusing path that is trying to change their mind (Lupia, 2013). (Image © 2021, Taylor Haddock)

Scientific speakers must gain high source credibility, gain perceived trustworthiness and competence, in order to successfully educate their audience (Fiske & Dupree, 2014). This can be especially difficult in politicized environments that offer an alternate belief opposed to the scientific presentation (Lupia, 2013). It can frustrate scientists when they work to find relevant, credible information and people actively ignore it. However, this is an obstacle that scientists can overcome with practice.

The first step of overcoming this social barrier is understanding and respecting where opposing viewpoints originate. Many beliefs provide personal affirmation. Some go hand-in-hand with how a person views themselves or the world, and provide a sense of security (Fiske & Dupree, 2014). We, as scientists, must appreciate these perspectives, if not for accuracy then for the simple fact that they exist in our world and demand attention.

Scientists need to make their findings reachable and personal to compete with the more socially acceptable path.

The public’s understanding of material does not stick as much as its potential impact on themselves and their community (Varner, 2014). Scientists must make their presentations more personal by relating their findings to their audience’s lives. Preparing a presentation for a specific audience entails understanding the values and beliefs of a subset of members and using these viewpoints to share a similarity with the audience. If one presents similar beliefs to their audience, it increases their trustworthiness and perceived competence. By portraying oneself as more similar to their audience than different, the audience is more likely to learn from the information they provide (Fiske & Dupree, 2014).

Scientists must prepare to address specific audiences because the general public encompasses many other publics, each with their own backgrounds, values and thought processes. Therefore, scientists must get to know their target audience prior to delivering a presentation anticipated to encourage their journey on a scientific path.

In some cases, speakers may benefit from misleading their audience to gain trust because source credibility does not depend on the speaker’s intentions, it depends on the audience’s perception of the speaker’s intentions (Lupia, 2013). In some situations, it can be ethical to provide misleading information to a non-science audience on the basis of gaining their trust. With their increased credibility, the speaker can relay an important scientific message that the audience is more likely to pay attention to and receive positively. This being said, a speaker should use potentially misleading information to improve their outreach effectiveness, not alter their scientific findings.

 There are many misconceptions about climate change held within certain communities of non-scientific expertise; these incorrect beliefs prove difficult to change because they fall into an organized mental model the belief holder uses to view the world (Chang & Pascua, 2015). Some people think the sun’s energy is solely responsible for global warming (Berardelli, 2020). When addressing this misconception, one needs the audience’s trust in order for their message to stick. One might find common ground by starting off with, “It’s true that the sun’s energy and orbital patterns naturally change the temperature of Earth”. This information is misleading because it doesn’t mention that today’s rates are rising at a much faster rate than capable of only sun interference (Berardelli, 2020). However, this misleading information is ethical because it provides an open line of communication by gaining audience trust, and doesn’t directly oppose scientific findings. It’s more practical to use incorrect common ground to address one misconception at a time rather than presenting many accurate scientific findings that oppose many of the audience’s mental model beliefs, leading them to immediately reject all scientific information presented.

By helping audiences receive scientific messages and become educated by them, their false beliefs may eventually be replaced by science-based claims. This can only happen due to elevated source credibility, not directly pushing science onto people who aren’t ready for it yet. When it comes to controversial topics, it can be more effective to express a sense of understanding to the audience before stating findings they might otherwise immediately reject. Sometimes, using misleading information can help scientific speakers convey a memorable message while also remaining authentic in their scientific findings (Lupia, 2013).


Taylor Haddock is a senior in the physiology major at the University of Wyoming.

references

Berardelli, J. 2020. 10 common myths about climate change ー and what science really Says. CBS news. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/climate-change-myths-what-science-really-says/

Brownell, S.E., J.V. Price, and L. Steinman. 2013. Science communication to the general public: Why we need to teach undergraduate and graduate students this skill as part of their formal scientific training. The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE)12(1): E6-E10.

Chang, C.H., Pascua, L. 2015. Singapore students’ misconceptions of climate change. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 25:1, 84-96. doi:10.1080/10382046.2015.1106206.

Fiske, S.T., and C. Dupree. 2014. Gaining audiences’ trust and respect about science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (Supplement 4): 13593-13597. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1317505111

Lupia, A. 2013. Communicating science in politicized environments. PNAS 110(suppl.3): 14048-14054. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212726110.

Varner, J. 2014. Scientific outreach: Toward effective public engagement with biological Science. BioScience 64(4): 333 – 340. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu021

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