Miah, A. (2005) Genetics, Cyberspace and Bioethics: Why Not a Public Engagement with Ethics? Public Understanding of Science 14(4), 409-421.


"while some critics of media representations of science have argued for less “wacky science” (Hargreaves et al., 2003: 49) in news reporting, there is merit in thinking through the ethics of science by considering “wacky” prospects. An important way in which the ethical implications are made meaningful in various cultural texts (film, television, literature, news) is through the use of metaphor or the analogizing of science fiction to science fact (Brem and Anijar, 2003). As Christidou, Dimopoulos and Koulaidis’ (2004) study of metaphor in scientific journalism indicates, “social representations evoked by the use of metaphors about science and technology in the press and popular scientific magazines contribute to the upheaval of the cultural authority of the corresponding field, hence playing a significant role in the maintenance of the social autonomy and integrity of the technoscientific profession” (p. 359). As well, critical to scientific journalism have been its linguistic aspects. Condit (1999) and Liakopoulos (2002) note how the use of metaphor has been essential to discourses on genetic technology, with such terms as “blueprint,” “book of life,” “Pandora’s box,” “Frankenstein,” and “playing God” all appearing as key descriptors about what is implied by the development of new genetic technology.

Thus, scientific communication relies on the use of metaphor to create meaning, though this is often criticized—particularly by philosophers, bioethicists and scientists. For example, when discussing genetic technology, people often imagine this technology as “playing God,” without giving much consideration of the content of that metaphor. Yet, very little has been discussed about how mediatized scientific metaphors inform the understanding of ethics (Liakopoulos, 2002; Condit, 1999). This is an oversight in the literature, particularly since the use of metaphor is crucial to science, which itself relies on metaphor as part of its theoretical and conceptual landscape (Pickering, 1999). In part, it is understandable that these metaphors often incite frustration for scientists about how their work is communicated. After all, part of the problem with the lack of inquiry into the use of metaphor within public discussions about science—which is highlighted by re-framing  he PUoS as the PEwE—has to do with wondering what kinds of metaphors are appropriate to use. Is the use of gene transfer technology really like “playing God”? Is the human genome really the “book of life”?

Being able to answer these sorts of questions could help develop a more effective engagement with the salient aspects of science. It is not necessary for the non-expert to understand the specifics of particle physics or molecular biology. It is not particularly important that people understand that DNA looks something like a twisted double helix. Indeed, most scientists do not really have an in-depth knowledge of anything beyond their specialization, so the aspirations for public understanding must be capped somewhere. This cap should be on being able to make sense of these innovations in the context of a broad range of social values and priorities, or what might more typically be described as an understanding of social justice.

Through developing a Public Engagement with Ethics, further work must be done to develop new ways of conceptualizing and communicating science and medicine. The use of metaphor is a rich way of making science meaningful, yet we rely too much on metaphors from past eras, such as the frequently cited “Frankenstein” myth, which continues to overwhelm the public consciousness on genetics (Turney, 1998). Criticisms are often made about such examples, since they simplify the implications of science significantly. Yet, it is these texts that inform the non-expert’s understanding of science and they constitute imaginative articulations of how the future might develop if such technology is accepted. However, new analogies and new metaphors are needed and the media (and literature) must play a crucial role in this development. There is a need to move towards a public “engagement” with ethics, which can be achieved through developing a PEwE.

When considering this in the context of other media forms, Petersen (2002) identifies that print journalism fails to engage with the finer details of moral debate. For example, when considering the press coverage surrounding the birth of Dolly the sheep, Petersen notes that: “Those news stories that drew attention to threats to ‘identity’, ‘individuality’ or ‘human dignity’, or to the ‘moral unacceptability’ of human cloning, offered little or no analysis of ‘what it means to be human’ or what exactly was morally objectionable about human cloning” (p. 86). By utilizing computer-mediated communications and promoting informed dialogue, it is possible to circumvent the criticisms of “expert” discourses in science and technology. Furthermore, this proposal takes into account recommendations from the UK’s Wellcome Trust and recent discussions within bioethics, which call for the integration of social science and ethical inquiry (Haimes, 2002; Hedgecoe, 2004).

These proposals imply the need to reconsider public engagement/understanding strategies by integrating ethical development as part of the educational/communicative model. This might entail the formal introduction of moral reasoning skills as part of a national curriculum, or could even emerge out of principles developed through philosophical counseling. Yet, it is also worthwhile considering the less-formal mechanisms that can offer opportunities to create ethical engagement with science, perhaps through the programming of science festivals, which can encompass the broader community of cultural industries in the processing of science."