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Ethics and Technology
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Hyping up scientific and technological discoveries

Who is responsible?

Making surgery smarter through ‘intelligent knives’, creating a better understanding of organs through organ-on-a-chip (which will hopefully lead to the creation of mechanical organs) and promising a technology like Theranos all hype up their positive impact in order to get media attention and (additional) funding for their projects. The way we talk about scientific and technological discoveries often turns to nothing more than “hype” – basically exaggerating the promises of test results, and downplaying negative aspects or even mayor risks. In other words: people are deceived about the realistic impacts (and actual results) of scientific breakthroughs or technological discoveries.

What is hyping, and what impact does it have?

Within the scientific and technological ecosystem, hyping up new discoveries or methods is often seen as something integral to research and innovation. It involves – according to the Science and Technology Studies (STS) literature – presenting a clear vision of the future, or what the future could look like if the promises of the new technology or scientific field becomes realised.

While we can ask whether even this scenario planning involves speculation and anticipation, it is clear that these narratives can start to live their own lives in the media, and can get out of control of those who presented the scenario in the first place. Creating a vision of the future – including the to-be-realised technology – is moreover necessary to receive funding to make this vision come true. Finding a balance between promising something that is just not feasible but sounds really cool and something that can realistically be realised but is a bit boring then turns into an important part of scientific communication.

Especially when we consider the effect hype can have on our well-being; offering hope to someone with an (as of yet) uncurable disease can have an important impact on their quality of life. Offering hope can act as a placebo. Yet the disappointment when it turns out that they were lied to can lead to people deteriorating even further.  This is most obvious in the medical context – this is also why I offered those examples in the beginning of this post – but can also have a huge influence on other societal issues.

One of these would be climate change, as telling people that scientists have discovered a new way to for example capture carbon can lead to (unrealistically) high expectations of saving the planet. When it turns out that carbon capture can not yet affect our environment as much as it was hyped to do, people feel disappointed and let down – and are less likely to trust scientists and media again.

Responsibility for hyping

So who would then be morally responsible for hyping up these scientific breakthroughs and technological discoveries? Who can we point fingers to if something doesn’t live up to the expectations? Who can we praise when something does live up to the hopes and hype people have?

Well, the answer is not as simple as we might hope it would be. The first issue lies in defining the complex issue of ‘responsible’ – for how can you assign responsibility without first understanding what it means? And the second lies in the fact that a lot of people are responsible for hyping up a certain discovery.

While there is a lot of literature available on moral responsibility, the main point boils down to this: people need to be capable of doing something to be responsible for it, people need to have a cause to do something, people need to agree on what counts as ‘wrong-doing’, people need to be free to do something, and people need to know what possible consequences are. These five components are usually what is considered to be necessary before we can assign moral responsibility to someone.

Candidates for responsibility

As possible candidates for the responsibility issue, we can point to three main groups. The first group would concern the scientists, who hype up their discoveries in order to get the funding to actualise the hype they created – which turns into a vicious circle. Now, there are several safeguards in place to make sure that researchers are not overstating the impact of their results, but this is often more of an issue with private research.

The second group is the media – after all, they are the ones who report about these discoveries in the newspaper and tell us that the world will be saved (even if they are aware that that is not what the research actually tells us…). The third and final group are the people themselves; who could be held responsible for not looking into the research results themselves and blindly trusting the media when they are told something.

All three groups can also considered to be not responsible for hyping. Researchers have ethical frameworks with regards to expectations, the media has ethical codes, and people could be expected to dive deeper into an issue than a three sentence post on a news site. All three groups could have the freedom and the knowledge to be responsible for the issue; this turns into a problem of many hands as Luciano Floridi might say. Who, of all these people, would ultimately be morally responsible?

Taking moral responsibility for hyping

One way to solve this issue is to have someone take moral responsibility for the disappointment that could follow hyping up technologies that end to be nothing but empty promises. However, this is not something that often happens. Look at the Theranos scandal which was eventually resolved through legal responsibility – not the moral responsibility for hyping up the technology as a medical miracle. Taking responsibility after something bad happened, however, is also not taking into account that we need to talk about hyping before it actually happens. 

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is actually a huge help in this area, as it asks us to think of the consequences of research in advance, and consider the ethical issues that might come up before, during, and after the project is done. Responsible scenario-building and responsible communication about scientific breakthroughs and technological discoveries already takes away a lot of the negative consequences of hyping, and should be taken into account when setting up a new research project.

Want to read more about taking moral responsibility? Click the link to get to Ibo van de Poel’s article on Varieties of Responsibility here.

Want to read more about hyping and scientific communication? Click the link to get to Tara Roberson’s article on Hyping and whether it can be a ‘force for good’ here.

About the author

Tynke is currently finishing her master's thesis in Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Twente, in Enschede. She's writing on the epistemic condition of moral responsibility, and whether information coming from automated decision making systems can satisfy this condition.