Ethical guidelines for science communication informed by cultural cognition research

People often express concern to me about the normative implications of research that exposes how cultural cognition influences perception and identifies how to to anticipate such influences 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 Gardosil: by using secret campaign contriutions to "persuade" a southern, religious, conservative politician -- Texas Governor Rich Perry -- to issue an executive order mandating HPV 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 message recipients would have themselves very much resented. They were using people.

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 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 most conduces to 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 own 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 that is willing to do it in a transparent way, without manipulation, 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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