Assorted Bite-Sized Case Studies

This collection of "mini cases" expands the set of TRCS full cases to touch on more fields, more communication situations, and more ethical dilemmas. All are based on real decisions that have come to our attention, although we have not always followed up with interviews with participants. We use the cases to spark 5-10 minute discussions of communication ethics in classes, workshops, presentations, lab meetings and other venues. If you have a case you'd like to volunteer for the set, contact us!

Communication Ethics Mini-Cases

When to go public #1: Withholding results

You are an ecologist who chose to work on environmental issues because you care deeply about them. Your research shows that extinction rates due to tropical deforestation are in fact much slower than other researchers have claimed. Good news! But you worry that your data is likely to be misused by logging companies, and that it might be used to support policies that could increase deforestation rates. Do you present your data at a professional conference, suspecting that it will be misused by people whose agenda you abhor?

Yes! Scientists need to report whatever findings the data supports, and should always ignore political issues about how their data will be used.

No! Research does not take place in a political vacuum. You need to prevent possible misuse of your data.

When to go public #2: Before peer review

Your lab has made what you believe to be a spectacular breakthrough in cold fusion technology, one that could change the course of human life on earth. You will, of course, write a research report and send your work to a major journal, but the importance of this breakthrough is not just scientific. You feel that this work should be made available to the public as soon as possible. Is it appropriate to go to the press to announce your research, although it has not yet been peer reviewed?

Yes! When you speak to the press, you can include cautions about peer review and the need for confirmation, but there is no need to wait before going public.

No! You should wait until the process takes its course, and then make a press release when your work has been accepted for publication.

When to go public #3: After peer review, before publication

Your new research on water quality shows that rivers in your state are too polluted to swim in, much less eat fish from. A local reporter wants to interview you. You know that her article will be very controversial, and that the responses to it will be painful to you. Some will argue that your claims are overblown, and that they will lead to regulations damaging to the state's economy. They will likely accuse you of bias. Do you talk with the reporter to explain your work in the popular press before the peer-reviewed paper appears?

Yes! The paper has been reviewed and accepted, and it’s time to get the issue discussed in public.

No! You should at least wait until the work is published, and even then you should minimize the public hoopla.

Framing your message #1: In general

A noted communication scholar writes an opinion piece in Science magazine, urging scientists to consciously use communication techniques to frame their messages. For example, climate scientists should frame their messages to stress the economic impacts of climate change. Is it appropriate for scientists to frame their messages?

Yes! All communication uses frames, so scientists can't avoid them when they communicate, and might as well use them on purpose.

No! Scientists should just report the facts—it is inappropriate for them to use framing techniques.

Framing your message #2: Reporting results

You are a food scientist studying milk. Like virtually all researchers in your field, you receive industry funding through the Dairy Council. In a recent study comparing the health impacts of raw and pasteurized milk, you found no significant differences. How do you report your findings at a conference likely to be covered by the press?

"Raw milk shows no health benefits." This statement—which your funder would endorse—is accurate.

"Raw milk is just as healthy as pasteurized milk." Your funder would not endorse this statement, but it is accurate and by framing your results in this way you demonstrate your independence.

Framing your message #3: Going public

You've done a field study showing that corn pollen can fall into streams and travel long distances. You've done a lab study showing that pollen from GM corn reduces growth of caddisflies larvae, acquatic insects that are related to the pests targeted by the GM corn. After you publish the two studies in a top journal, the press officer for your university contacts you about a press release. He wants to have the headline: Genetically Engineered Corn Harms Aquatic Ecosystems. Do you approve this headline?

Yes! It is understandable and attention-getting.

No! It far overstates your research.

Framing your message #4: Visual communication

You are designing an exhibit in your city's Aquarium on the effects of the Asian carp, an invasive species threatening the Great Lakes region. One tank includes an array of organisms native to the region, the other tank shows the reduced biodiversity caused by the Asian carp. Aside from the fish, the tanks are bare—the walls are blue and the bottoms covered with sand. A colleague suggests putting diverse aquatic plants in the "native" tank, and an old tire and other junk in the "invasive" tank. Should you do that? Or should the background of each tank be the same?

Yes! Industrial junk is an effective way of dramatizing the devastation the Asian carp will cause.

No! Industrial pollution in our waterways is bad, but it has nothing to do with the Asian carp.

Framing your message #5: Visual communication

You are a climate scientist at a state university. You have written an article on climate change for the Sunday magazine section of your local newspaper. The editor shows you a copy of the photo he is going to put next to your article. It shows a polar bear standing by itself on a lonely ice flow. You recognize the image, and realize it has been photoshopped to make it much more dramatic. Do you let your article be published?

Yes! You're fulfilling your obligation to communicate your science, and the picture isn't meant to be accurate.

No! The fake picture could undermine the credibility of your article.

Working with journalists #1:  Radio

You are a science professor at a state university. It's Friday morning. A local talk radio host calls you to invite you to appear on her Monday morning show. She says she wants you to criticize a recent scientific journal article in your area on a politically sensitive topic. You've heard about the article, but you haven't read it, and you do think it's probably bad in several ways. Do you agree to appear on the show?

Yes! You're fulfilling your duty to educate the public.

No! You shouldn't agree to advocate for the host's pre-existing agenda.

Working with journalists #2: Magazine

Because your research involves the development of wind energy, it receives a lot of press. You know that it will be difficult for wind to replace fossil fuel energy, though you are hopeful that wind will supplement it. Do you talk with an enthusiastic reporter for an environmental magazine? Having read his work, you suspect that he has unrealistic beliefs about wind energy, and that what he writes will hype your research, making claims more extravagant than any you would make. Do you agree to be interviewed?

Yes! He’s responsible for his own work. As long as you tell the truth, the fact that he hypes your work isn’t your fault.

No! You should not help him write a misleading paper.

Working with journalists #3:  Magazine

A reporter from an environmental magazine wants to interview you about your wind energy research. Having read his work, you suspect that he has unrealistic beliefs about wind energy and that what he writes will make claims more extravagant than any you would endorse. You know that it will be difficult for wind to replace existing systems, though you are hopeful that wind will supplement them. Still, your research area might benefit if people look favorably on wind energy, even if their beliefs are unrealistic. Do you work with this interviewer?

Yes! He’s responsible for his own work. As long as you tell the truth, the fact that he hypes your work isn’t your fault.

No! If you know that he will make claims you would not support, you should not help him to write a misleading article.

Working with journalists #4: Film

Because you are well known for your excellent work on anthropogenic climate change, you are invited to appear as one of the main “talking heads” in a film under development by Al Gore. Your data and your views support those of Gore and the film makers, but you worry that your work might inappropriately come to be “politicized” if you appear in the film—that people will come to think of you as an advocate rather than as an impartial scientist. Should you appear in the film?

Yes! The boundary between science and politics is never clear, and in the case of climate science it is especially fuzzy. If your scientific work is good, it should speak for itself.

No! You should try to keep your scientific work distinct from your role as a citizen. Appearing in the film will undermine the value of your work, since people will come to see you as an advocate.

Working with journalists #5: Film

As a climate scientist, you experience public mistrust for your work because there is a sector of the public who regard climate science as political and non-scientific. You are invited to participate in a film titled Thin Ice which endeavors to show that climate science is science, and that people who are pursuing this science are following the data where they lead, not arranging data to fit their pre-scientific political convictions. You are invited to participate. Should you appear in the film?

Yes! The boundary between science and politics is never clear, and in the case of climate science it is especially fuzzy. If your scientific work is good, it should speak for itself.

No! You should try to keep your scientific work distinct from your role as a citizen. Appearing in the film will undermine the value of your work, since people will come to see you as an advocate.

Other: Promoting biased views?

You are a researcher working on crop biotechnology. In your judgment, biotechnology will increase agricultural productivity and reduce pesticide use, but it will not address the problem of world hunger. Nevertheless, you know that promoting the idea that biotechnology will solve world hunger is a good way to get public support for it—including for your own research. You have an opportunity to promote a speaker who will make this case in a large public forum at your university. Should you sponsor this speaker?

Yes! The speaker is responsible for his own message. Biotechnology deserves public support, even if people have unrealistic beliefs about biotechnical and hunger.

No!  If you don’t support the views of this speaker, it is inappropriate to allow others to be misled by her talk, even if the overall results are good.

Other: Your colleague hypes

You have a colleague and collaborator who regularly speaks with the press about work that is underway in your joint laboratory. In your view, this colleague—a good scientist with whom you are otherwise pleased and honored to work—shamelessly hypes your research to the press, making claims that go far beyond what you would be willing to say, and beyond what the present data support. Should you “rein in” your colleague, or simply let her act on her own conscience? Yes! Rein this person in if you can—what she says will reflect on the entire lab, not only on her own work.

No! You are in no position to tell this person what to do. The fact that you work together in some contexts doesn’t give you a right to interfere.

Other: Interacting with people with unscientific views

Should Bill Nye debate the theory of evolution with Ken Hamm, director of the Creation Museum?

Yes! Scientists should always be open to challenge, and refusing to debate can make the proponents of evolution look weak.

No! Debating a creationist only dignifies his position. The best communication strategy is to ignore the creationist position.

Other: Responding to political attacks

A blogger for a major conservative magazine compares a Penn State climate scientist to Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach. Where Sandusky molested children, the scientist "molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science." Now the scientist is considering suing the blogger for libel. Should he sue?

Yes! Scientists ought to protect their public reputations; the blogger attacked the scientists honesty.

No! Scientists should remain outside the political fray, even where advocates want to draw them in.

How to use the mini-cases for impromptu debate rounds

Take the PDF version of the mini cases and cut it horizontally into strips; fold the strips in half and put them in a bag. Divide students into pairs. Student #1 draws two slips at random and selects one of them to debate; student #2 tears the selected slip in half and selects which side she wants to defend, handing the other half back to student #1. The pair is then dismissed to the hall where they have five minutes or so to prepare. Just before they come back in, the next pair of students draws their slips and is dismissed to the hall. The first pair then reads out the issue and presents a debate on it. If they run out of arguments, discussion from the whole class can be invited.