Science Communication and Ethics—The application of Kohlberg’s moral reasoning to science communicators in Canada

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Bell, Dayna
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Mount Saint Vincent University
The field of science communication is unique. Essentially, it is a blend of the world of science and the world of communication. Science communication is not a new concept, but surprisingly, as an emerging field, not much of it has been studied in depth. According to a 2011 call for papers, the intersection of science communication and ethics is an area of research that scholars want to see expanded, because the current information is limited. Using a lens of ethical reasoning, the following study looks at science communicators and their approach to solving these ethical situations. This study looks at ethical decision-making and the application of the moral philosophy of Lawrence Kohlberg to science communicators today, as well as uses the work of Kohlberg as a philosophical underpinning. Kohlberg is famous for his work in psychology, measuring the moral reasoning of individuals, from children to adults (Kohlberg, 1981). His six-stage philosophy of moral reasoning ranges from the basic moral reasoning of an individual aged three to four, to a final stage of complete morality at adulthood. To measure the moral reasoning of science communicators, a sample of science communicators were administered the Defining Issues Test (DIT). This measure is based in Kohlbergian moral reasoning, but adaptable for multiple-choice formats. The DIT has a series of vignettes that the participant reads and then chooses the most important factors from each vignette. The score is then tabulated and given a P value which correlates to its own level of moral reasoning (Rest, 1986). Additionally, the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) measure was added to look at the current landscape of science communication and technology. After a preliminary exploratory study in 2014, it was indicated that science communicators might feel anxiety when using social media (as it is commonly associated with communication jobs). Since social media is so prevalent in today’s culture, it was decided to explore this point further using the UTAUT to measure the acceptance of a technology, in this instance, social media (Venkatesh, 2003). In composition, the study utilized an online questionnaire format, via the online question platform, Qualtrics, and science communicators were recruited via email invitation. The questionnaire included an informed consent, brief demographic questions, the DIT and the UTAUT measures. The questionnaire was live for five months, and had a sample response rate of 37. Out of this sample, 17 of the 37 responses were viable. When the results were tabulated, no significance was found between gender and social media anxiety, or level of moral reasoning and work experience, and age, but significance was found after tabulating the morality scores of science communicators versus the mean scores assumed for DIT, and Kohlbergian ethics. This resulted in the study finding that the sample of science communicators had a higher level of moral reasoning than the average population. Although the sample size was statistically insignificant, the study showed that science communicators can be measured for moral reasoning and gives insight into the basis behind their decisions. Moving forward this study has potential to be expanded to a larger sample group, to see if the results still show significance on a larger scale as well as sets a basis for more exploration in the field of science communication and ethics.
science communication; ethics; Kohlberg; Defining Issues Test, moral reasoning