Science Communication and the Problematic Impact of Descriptive Norms

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When scientists or science reporters communicate research results to the public, this often involves ethical and epistemic risks. One such a risk arises when scientific claims cause cognitive or behavioral changes in the audience that contribute to the self-fulfillment of these claims. Focusing on such effects, I argue that the ethical and epistemic problem that they pose is likely to be much broader than hitherto appreciated. Moreover, it is often due to a psychological phenomenon that has been neglected in the research on science communication, namely that 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 can 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 a strategy and argue that its implementation is independently well motivated by the fact that it helps improve scientific accuracy.
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First archival date: 2020-11-03
Latest version: 4 (2021-09-07)
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