Bioethics & the New Media

Bioethics and the New Media

A few months ago, Gareth Jones and Robert Cole published a paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal in which they argued that it is better to use non-invasive prenatal diagnosis tests for Down Syndrome rather than more invasive ones. The paper, quite surprisingly, elicited some very heated reactions from the public. About a year before this episode, even more violent reactions were caused by a paper on abortion that we published in the Journal of Medical Ethics. These recent events seem to suggest that we need to rethink the way results of academic research are communicated to the non academic public: How should academics communicate and spread the results of their research among the lay public? And how should the media report and disseminate the results of academic reflection on bioethics?

Although these questions are relevant for any field of academic research (to the extent that they have a practical or cultural relevance for society and individuals), they are particularly pressing for bioethicists for at least two reasons. First, the political agenda in democratic countries is becoming increasingly concerned with regulation of biotechnologies, of medical practices and health-related issues which, in turn, have a deep impact on the life of people and on their choices. Second, issues in bioethics deal with topics, such as life, death, the moral status of human beings (and many others) that touch upon people’s most profound and personal values. For this reason, very often ideas which go against traditional values are perceived with an immediate feeling of shock and an immediate impulse to rebut the proposal, prior to any rational, cold reflection. And the problem is that such reactions cannot be easily dismissed as a sign of irrationality of people who cannot fully appreciate the opportunities of new biotechnologies or the freedom and well-being that some medical options can promote.

Recent findings in moral psychology give an account of why the human mind has this kind of intuitive reaction and “gut feeling” towards proposals that stimulate any of the “six modules” (evolved for adaptive reasons) through which our brain produces moral judgments.  These six modules include not only care, fairness, and liberty, which are the basis for liberal positions, but also loyalty, authority, sanctity, which are integral parts of our moral brain and which stimulate “yuck responses” from conservatives. That these “moral chords” may have evolved to favor human adaptation to the natural and social environments makes it at the very least problematic to simply label them as a sign of “irrationality.”  On the other hand, it seems that it would be a deep violation of academic freedom if bioethicists were forced not to publish the results of their research in order to avoid causing a “yuck” reaction in the public. After all, many things that used to cause a “yuck” reaction just a few years ago (like in vitro fertilization) are now considered acceptable by many people. So, at least in some cases, the “yuck” reaction seems to disappear after a while, when people learn more about a certain practice or when they come to realize that it is useful.

All these considerations pose a challenge to those working in the field of bioethics – challenge which many bioethicists may not be well prepared to face. Although this problem is as old as the history of bioethics, never before have bioethicists found themselves up against the internet and the possibility it offers anyone to access information, take part in public debates and comment on almost any topic.

It is certainly positive that nowadays so many people engage with issues in bioethics and expose themselves to sensitive issues related to new technologies. However, the modality in which the communication between bioethicists in academia and the lay public takes place needs further consideration. In the past, academia was quite distant from the lay public. For instance, academic journals were explicitly directed to other academics; they were printed in paper and consulted at libraries.  This way, it was very difficult for people outside academia to have access to scientific papers and therefore to actively contribute to the academic discussion.

Fortunately, the internet has changed this situation, and now many peer-reviewed journals have an online version, enabling people to easily access and read scientific papers.  Moreover, the internet helps the spreading of news and information outside the traditional channels (books, radio TV) and reduces the costs of communication through very cheap new media such as blogs, online magazines and newspapers, videos of conferences and talks, and through social networks such as Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter and many others. These new media channels follow different rules than traditional ones do. In particular, when writing for a blog or for an online newspaper, for example, there is no obligation for people writing a piece to disclose their name or to change a piece of information if it somehow proved to be wrong or even false.  And because communication is very fast on the web, any misinterpretations or misunderstandings will spread much faster compared to more traditional media.

In particular, we think, misunderstandings can be common considering that academics, including bioethicists, use their specialist language, and this language is different from everyday language. When a scientific paper is read by someone who does not have a background in that field, misunderstandings can easily occur, especially if colloquial words are used in a particular context. Words that in the everyday language have a certain meaning can mean something quite different in a particular discipline.  For example, the word “force” means “strength” in everyday language, but it has a quite different meaning in physics. The word “person,” similarly, means something like “human being” or “individual” in everyday language, but in bioethics there is a difference between saying that someone is a human being and saying that they are a person, as persons are usually considered individuals with particular capacities. This explains why in a scientific journal the claim “dolphins are persons” sounds quite different from the same claim made, say, in a newspaper. It also explains why many bioethicists think that embryos and fetuses are not persons, but they still think that they are human beings and individuals. On the other hand, in everyday language people normally use “person,” “human being” and “individual” as synonymous.

We are used to thinking that translations are necessary when people want to communicate using two different languages, but it is true that we need translations also from a specialized  language into a language accessible to non experts. As philosophers and as bioethicists, we cannot understand a paper published in an engineering journal if it is not translated into more accessible terms to us. Likewise, non-philosophers and non-bioethicists need a translation in order to properly understand a paper published in a bioethics journal. The problem is that whereas this filter or translation is usually understood as necessary when reporting new results in science so that the lay public can have a clue of what, for example, molecular biologists are doing, there is no perception that a similar interpretation should be done when reporting on a paper in bioethics.

The technical language of bioethics involves less technical words than the language of molecular biology, but this does not mean that a translation is not necessary.  Indeed, we do need scientific journalists, who have always been the ones designated to “translate” technical papers into newspapers pieces, but these days it happens more and more often that bioethics articles are not translated into a non specialized language and properly introduced to the lay public. What usually happens is that a short excerpt of a paper is quoted, but without explaining what it means in its original context, without explaining the meaning of some words in a certain academic field, and without giving an account of the state of the art of that debate in that particular area.

It seems to us that, in order to promote a properly informed participation of the public to the academic debate in bioethics, it is important to encourage and to facilitate the translation of the bioethics language into a less specialized language, and to put more effort into providing readers with an appropriate explanation of the context in which ideas are developed as well as the state of the art of the actual debate in bioethics.

Alberto Giubilini ( is Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University.

Francesca Minerva ( is a McKenzie Postdoctoral fellow at CAPPE , University of Melbourne. Francesca is a bioethicist and is currently working on a project on conflicts of values between patients and doctors.


Image:  A human mesenchymal stem cell, by Ghanson. Wikimedia Commons.


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