March 13, 2017

On Ethics, Fake News and Science

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Science is not about standalone discoveries. Scientists share hypotheses, findings and conclusions to help build a concrete picture of the world. To enable such discussion and deliberate science’s role in shaping public policy, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual conference on Feb. 16 in Boston. The theme this year was ‘serving society through science policy.’

Discussions such as these run the risk of harboring a political slant. Indeed, this was how the AAAS conference began, with AAAS President, Dr. Barbara Schaal, commenting on recent immigration restrictions. One of her main concerns was the possibility of the executive order disrupting scientific collaboration between nations.

Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication, a longtime member of AAAS, echoes some of Schaal’s sentiments; describing the organization as one devoted to maintaining the connection between scientific communities in the United States and the public. According to Lewenstein, the conference plays an important role in bringing scientists from different disciplines together.

“It’s a meeting intended to reach out to a broader audience at these spaces,” Lewenstein said.
“What happens at the meeting is rarely the most important thing. If you’re a geneticist, you will not necessarily be as informed as an ethicist. There are a lot of productive meetings for all kinds of scientists.”

One of the conference’s key goals was to address the growing challenges that scientists face in sharing their findings with the public, especially with the dissemination of so called ‘fake news’. An important seminar that set the tone for such discussions was led by Prof. Dan Kahan, law, Yale University, on how political and personal beliefs shape an individual’s interpretation of scientific facts.

According to Kahan, the effect of an individual’s beliefs on their acceptance of scientific facts can be modelled in two ways. The first, the information aggregator account model, sees our beliefs as the sum total of the information we are exposed to while the second, motivated processor account, suggests that we weigh information based on existing predispositions. While none can encapsulate the processes by which we evaluate information, Kahan presented further research on the topic. According to him, most people fully comprehend the scientific facts shown to them, regardless of their political stances, but their acceptance of such information depends on how it challenges their existing beliefs.

Cornell librarian Kelee Pacion, an expert on methods used to critically analyze information, echoes these sentiments and emphasizes the need to help people develop the skills to critically evaluate the quality of information.

“Social media moves fast,” Pacion said. “High school education could help by implementing new methods for dealing with fact analysis.”

While concerns regarding fake news have only recently surfaced, ethical issues in science have always been under discussion. Part of the conference’s mission was to provide a forum to discuss these issues.

One controversial discovery, CRISPR gene-editing, has been under the spotlight since the National Academy of Sciences passed a resolution in February that called for the development of technology that aids the study of medical conditions. The tool enables researchers to remove, add or alter sections of the genome and could potentially help treat genetic conditions. The controversy lies in the possibility of altering reproductive cells, an act with repercussions that would be felt by future generations.

“The technology is urgently needed but if we’re targeting a larger population, the regulations should be tight so it needs tighter security. We’re potentially polluting our genetic pools. The resolution was the right decision to proceed forward with caution,” said Prof. Ailong Ke, molecular biology and genetics and an expert on CRISPR systems.

While these ethical questions are far from being answered, the conference did shed light on important issues that the scientific community needs to consider. Furthermore, as the event came to a close, scientists from all disciplines came together to create a video story. Despite the different points of focus, each shared a common theme: science is shaped by more than facts and experiments, but the people who conduct them and their role in informing the wider world.