April 25, 2013 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Several scholars claim that hyping different biotechnologies will lead to a loss of public trust which in turn will result in a loss of support for science. This has been discussed in the context of genomics research, gene therapy, stem cell research, biobanking, neuroimaging research, and nanotechnology. The problem most articulate is that hype in terms of promising medical benefits to the public will generate an expectation by the public and when such expectations are unmet, the public’s support for science will wane. Certainly there is social science evidence to support that (a) hype over many biotechnologies is present in the popular media and (b) several actors are involved in hyping science including scientists, media, politicians, and others. And while the idea that hype and unmet expectations could result in a loss of public trust and support for science seems logical and to some degree intuitive, I think the reality is that the relationship between hype, public trust, and the loss of support for science is quite complex. It is also complicated to measure empirically and to date, there is no study I have come across that demonstrates this relationship. In fact, the one study evaluating the public and donor’s perceptions on hype and stem cell research actually shows that people “aren’t taken in by media hype.”

First, “hype” is to some degree ill-defined. Hype in the context of our discussion is about predicting scientific futures. In an attempt to redefine hype, I basically see it as a linear process where someone predicts a scientific future about a biotechnology that is completely 100% fact based, to a gradual increase in hype based on complete exaggeration with no factual basis at the other end. This I would say is tantamount to lying. In this sense, the ethical issues surrounding hype, to some degree depend on the extent of hype.

Second, “public trust” is also a complex and poorly defined term. There are many publics and what is a public can be based on geographical location, income, race, culture and much more. Different publics have differing levels of trust in science and research and this is well documented in the social science literature.

Third, what does it mean to show support for science? Does supporting science mean you donate money for scientific research, vote for a presidential candidate who is pro-science, work in a laboratory, picket for embryo research, or just generally believe in the advancement of science.

My point is that these relationships are not so direct, linear, and simple as some scholars make it out to be. Combine this with a lack of empirical data is all the more reason why we need to further study the relationships between hype, public trust, and public support for science. The conclusion I make is that scholars who discuss the ethical and social issues of hyping biotech need to refrain from hyping the ethics of hype. Academics need to ensure that their conceptual arguments made between hype and public trust are appropriately nuanced and accurately reflect our current understanding of this relationship.

For further reading on this topic, I would like to refer readers to this article

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.