Ethical issues in communicating science

Sci Eng Ethics. 2000 Oct;6(4):435-42. doi: 10.1007/s11948-000-0001-7.


Most of the publicized work on scientific ethics concentrates on establishing professional norms and avoiding misconduct. The successful communication of science is the responsibility of all involved in the process. In one study, the increased incidence of autism and other social developmental disorders in males was investigated by examining individuals with Turner's syndrome (XO females). In the national newspaper this became "Genetic X-factor explains why boys will always be boys". The steps by which a study on developmental disorders, published in a highly prestigious journal, was transformed into an article in the science section which 'explained' the socially expected gender-based behavior of genetically normal children are fascinating and, unfortunately far too typical. The scientists wrote an excellent article that has just one sentence at the end that hesitantly suggests that the findings might, with further study, have some relevance to understanding normal behavior. The general interest article in the front of the journal gave a good account of the research, but suggested more strongly that there could be an in-built biological dimorphism in social cognition. This was misrepresented in the press as proof of gender differences that "undermines the trend towards sexual equality", and both illustrates cultural bias and provides fodder for feminist critiques of science. The study has been made to appear to be biased in favor of justifying the social structure of society, and yet it was the translation from the scientific study to national news that produced this transformation to biased genetic determinism. It is poor communication of the actual science, coupled with a lack of skepticism on the part of the public, that contributes to such a misapplication of science. Scientists should resist the urge to generalize their results to make them more compelling. The science community should not allow misconstructions of scientific facts to go unchallenged. Journalists, for both the scientific publication and the newspaper, should resist the inclination to embellish the finding with social significance that is not present. For their part, readers must be doubly skeptical of any finding that appears to underwrite any current social hierarchy. We are all responsible for a communication and interpretation of science that is as accurate and socially responsible as possible.

Publication types

  • Editorial

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Ethics, Professional*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Journalism*
  • Male
  • Science* / education