Panel members Nicole Jones, Tania Bubela and Mark Winston

Ethical dilemmas in science communication: advice from the Dean

May 02, 2018

What are the emerging ethical dilemmas in science communication? This was the question posed to an expert panel at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCCan) Conference, held at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre. Responding to questions from the audience and panelists, SFU’s Tania Bubela, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and professor Mark Winston, along with freelance journalist Nicole Jones and moderator Ivan Semeniuk from the Globe and Mail, tackled audience questions on transparency, inclusion and integrity.

On transparency, one attendee asked, ‘How can I be transparent about the problems we have in science without the public losing trust in scientific research?’

Bubela responded, “It’s the trust in the scientific method that needs to be retained. When science is found to be ‘faulty’, or when a conclusion is overturned, that’s science doing its job. It’s not a distrust in the process, or a lack of objective truth, that’s the way science is supposed to work.” She says transparency is further improved when the public can assess the credibility of the information, including understanding potential conflicts of interest of researchers and their funding, or research funding.  

Another audience member asked: ‘Should I remain gender neutral in my writing, even if it makes for clumsy writing?’

Bubela was quick to respond that writers should use the pronouns as requested by the story’s subjects. However, she said, that is not the heart of the issue. “I think we need to be conscious of gendered language that supports stereotypes. The issue goes much deeper than pronouns. Our use of adjectives and words we ascribe to men and women in stories are very different. For example, we often portray men as ‘heroes’ and women as ‘caregivers’.”

Finally, the panel discussed questions of integrity, addressing whether it is ethical to use a good hook that ends up embellishing the science?

Bubela acknowledged that while every story needs a good hook, it still needs to remain true to the limits of the science. While a new ‘miracle cure’ might work in mice, history tells us that it is unlikely to ever cure disease in humans. The embellishment is often most egregious in the headlines, which are often in the hands of an editor rather than the science writer. But social media, such as Twitter, commonly amplifies just the headline. Bubela’s advice:  try to “ensure your headline isn’t misleading or misrepresenting the science. You don’t want the wrong information being conveyed by a snappy headline.”

The four-day conference was a sold-out success, with more than 30 sessions to choose from that focused on a number of topics including ‘Building a Sustainable World’, ‘Science, Sexism and Storytelling’, and ‘Approaches to Teaching Scientists’. The conference showcased many speakers from SFU, clearly demonstrating SFU’s commitment to community engagement.

If you would like to learn more about the SWCCan organization, and future conferences please click here.