Science Communication and the Problematic Impact of Descriptive Norms

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 74 (3):713-738 (2023)
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Abstract

When scientists or science reporters communicate research results to the public, this often involves ethical and epistemic risks. One such risk arises when scientific claims cause cognitive or behavioural changes in the audience that contribute to the self-fulfilment of these claims. I argue that the ethical and epistemic problems that such self-fulfilment effects may pose are much broader and more common than hitherto appreciated. Moreover, these problems are often due to a specific psychological phenomenon that has been neglected in the research on science communication: many people tend to conform to ‘descriptive norms’, that is, norms capturing (perceptions of) what others commonly do, think, or feel. Because of this tendency, science communication may frequently produce significant social harm. I contend that scientists have a responsibility to assess the risk of this potential harm and consider adopting strategies to mitigate it. I introduce one such strategy and argue that its implementation is independently well motivated by the fact that it helps improve scientific accuracy.

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Uwe Peters
Utrecht University

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