DeLTA Center Roundtable - Carrie Figdor (University of Iowa)

DeLTA Center Roundtable - Carrie Figdor (University of Iowa)
Friday, April 28, 2017 - 9:00am to 10:30am
Lindquist Center

Dr. Carrie Figdor, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience, will be giving a roundtable for the DeLTA Center.

"Dr. Figdor's primary research areas are philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and neuroscience, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and metaphysics, plus neuroethics and media ethics. Her current research focuses on the use of psychological terms throughout biology, a topic at the intersection of philosophy language, mind, and science.  She is also working on projects in mechanistic explanation, the relation between psychology and moral status, and the epistemology of journalism."

From the Department of Philosophy, U of Iowa, 28 February 2017.

Title: (When) Is Science Reporting Ethical? The Case for Recognizing Shared Epistemic Responsibility in Science Journalism


Internal mechanisms that uphold the reliability of published scientific results have failed across many sciences, including some that are major sources of science news. Traditional methods for reporting science in the mass media do not effectively compensate for this unreliability. I argue for a new conceptual framework in which science journalists and scientists form a complex knowledge community, with science news as the interdisciplinary product. This approach motivates forms of collaboration and training that can improve the epistemic reliability of science news.

In a panel discussion of the problem of communicating uncertain scientific results to the public, former New York Times science reporter and editor Phillip Boffey remarks:

One of the problems in journalism is to try to find what is really going on, what is accurate and which sources to trust. What makes it slightly easier in the science arena than in others is the mechanisms that are designed to both produce consensus and reduce uncertainty in science. A peer-reviewed journal gives reporters more confidence than an unreviewed source because at least someone who knew something about the subject looked at the paper. (Friedman et al., 1999)

Boffey adds that uncertainty is a smaller problem for science reporters than for reporters covering other types of news “because of the scientific tradition of replicating or refuting studies and findings. It is a professional obligation for researchers to discuss the uncertainty of their findings.”

Boffey’s remarks reveal a traditional science journalist’s trust that the mechanisms of scientific research are generally reliable—that, within allowable limits for error, research is being properly conducted, peer-reviewed journals reliably publish only papers that have met high epistemic standards, and consensus opinion is a reliable indicator of which hypotheses are most highly confirmed by the evidence. Unfortunately, this trust is no longer clearly justified in many fields of scientific research. It is estimated that as many as half the articles in peer-reviewed journals across a wide variety of fields, from biomedical research to social psychology, report results that are probably false (Ioannidis, 2005; Simmons et al., 2011; Ioannidis et al., 2014). If so, then journalists possess good reasons to believe that scientists in affected fields have not conducted the inquiry necessary to have evidence for the reported result (Hardwig, 1985). In terms of the ethics of inquiry—the epistemic norms governing when belief is warranted—it may be epistemically unvirtuous for a journalist to believe published results in these fields, and in consequence to report them—at least not without a disclaimer to the effect that the entire field is epistemically unreliable.1

This raises a critical issue: when a science journalist cannot take the proper conduct of a science for granted, what does this imply for the epistemically responsible conduct of her job? Epistemic responsibility is already a formal norm of the profession: for example, the U.S. Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (Society for Professional Journalists, 2014) states that journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work” and “verify information before releasing it.” The question is how science journalists can satisfy these epistemic norms when belief that scientists are following their own ethics of inquiry is unwarranted. The issue generalizes to any news based on raw or analyzed data produced by third parties—an increasingly important sector of journalism, and arguably the future of the profession (Nguyen and Lugo-Ocando, 2016).2 Even more generally: what should non-experts do when trust in the experts is known to be misplaced yet continued epistemic dependence on them is unavoidable?

++Coffee, water, and pastries will be provided.