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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Scientist’s Dilemma: The Ethics of Advocacy
by Stroffolino, Andrew, Ph.D., Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, School of Graduate Studies, 2019, 217; 22617390
Abstract (Summary)

Scientific information can play a key role in how people manage risk. While much sociological research has explored how non-scientists struggle to acquire policy-relevant information, relatively little research has explored how scientists struggle to provide it. Drawing on the “institutional logics” perspective, I describe scientists’ efforts to positively impact society. My three empirical chapters explore scientists’ discourse regarding morality and risk communication at the levels of institutions, individuals, and organizations.

With respect to institutions, I found that prominent handbooks on the nature of science offer no indication that scientists ought to communicate with the public or any useful advice for overcoming perceptions that scientists who engage in advocacy are biased. Moreover, consensus reports on risk tend not to discuss ethical issues regarding public communication. These findings suggest that scientists lack norms for why and how they should communicate risk to the public.

With respect to individuals, I spoke with academic scientists about appropriate and inappropriate ways of communicating risk. Although respondents spoke of risk communication as a moral responsibility, several factors made it a moral dilemma, particularly for scientists who lacked tenure. Compared to immediate threats like looming hurricanes, scientists were more reluctant to reach out to the media about intangible threats like climate change. Scientists also tended to view more direct forms of public engagement as personally risky. Additionally, respondents discussed structural and material constraints to conducting policy-relevant science within the academy, resulting in a paucity of information to communicate.

With respect to organizations, I examined how science organizations from around the world responded to a manslaughter trial against seven scientists and engineers. The prosecution argued that the defendants had offered poor scientific advice in the days before a deadly earthquake. I argue that the lack of norms for communicating about immediate seismic threats prompted science organizations to rally behind the defendants. Some organizations argued for the scientists’ innocence, while others advocated what I call “scientific immunity,” that is, the notion that scientists cannot be held legally accountable for what they communicate to the public, even when what they communicate is scientifically unfounded.

An overarching finding is that academic scientists experience moral dilemmas regarding the public communication of risk, particularly about hazards that the public does not believe pose an immediate threat. Because these dilemmas are partially rooted in the lack of norms for public communication, academic scientists might benefit from more training in how to communicate with the public. Normalizing risk communication might lead to better risk management strategies that would ultimately improve public health.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Clarke, Lee
Commitee: MacKendrick, Norah, Rudel, Thomas, Daipha, Phaedra, Jordan, Rebecca
School: Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, School of Graduate Studies
Department: Sociology
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 81/7(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Sociology, Ethics, Communication
Keywords: Academic scientists, Environmental hazards, Institutional logics, Morality, Public science, Risk communication
Publication Number: 22617390
ISBN: 9781392558409
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