When people ask me what is ‘Neuroethics Today’, or what is ‘neuroethics’, replying with the standard textbook definition ‘it is the study of the ethical, legal, and societal implications of neuroscience and neurotechnology’ leave those that were once curious about my work, distant and perplexed. It is with experience accompanied by some failed attempts at conveying a message, and with increasingly confused faces before me, which led me to the concept of “ethics communication”.
Science communication vs Ethics communication
Science is a field so complex that it requires science communication and communicators to break down scientific concepts that would otherwise not be understood by non-experts. Ethics is a field, that is as complex and as important, and yet has spent the last decades mostly working behind closed doors (and paywalls). Tech scandals including Cambridge Analytica, the COVID-19 pandemic, and unsupervised health tech companies, among others have all added urgency to the need for open dialogue and open communication between governments, policymakers, scientists, ethicists, developers, and the public. There is momentum and we should take advantage of it.
Next-generation ethics communicators #EthComm
During my initial and preliminary thoughts, I envisioned two types of ethics communicators: (1) The Messengers, and (2) The Chiefs. The first type, the messengers, are scientists, ethicists, CEOS, engineers, designers, developers, etc. who embed ethics communication within their work. They are ethically aware. For example, a neuroscientist is an ethics communicator by being aware of the possible ethical implications of their work, being open about the advantages and disadvantages that their research might bring forward, and actively engaging in discussions with colleagues and non-experts about these considerations.
The second type, the chiefs, are dedicated ethics communicators, whose main goal is to create content that relates to ethics communication, and engage with the public. They are proactive in their endeavors. They are ethics communicators first, with the goal to improve the public understanding of (neuro)ethical discussions and implications in the areas of medicine, public health, and artificial intelligence, among others.
We need both! We need experts to undergo ethical training (e.g., through interactive workshops) in order to grow critical about their own research and that of their peers. And we also need to put efforts into building programs and trainings for next-generation ethics communicators.
How do we do it?
The way I see it, it is reinventing ourselves and the way we look at the field of ethics and philosophy, mostly confined to the closed doors of academia. It is thinking out-of-the-box, by using generation-appropriate means and methods for the appropriate generation or target group. I have often found myself repressing my ideas because they were too ‘imaginative’, too ‘unorthodox’, but I have come to realize that this is maybe exactly what we need to improve our public outreach and ensure proper engagement with non-experts and society. If it’s writing a short blog post, creating a dedicated social media account, making a TikTok, writing a book, singing a song, creating your own YouTube channel, or hosting a public (ethics) debate.
In practice, ethics communication strives to:
Inform non-experts (including the public, scientists, and businesses) about emerging ethical issues, and ongoing ethical discussions;
Create opportunities for public engagement and reciprocal dialogue between relevant stakeholders; and
Translate findings from discussions back to experts to facilitate co-creation strategies.
Let’s re-create ethics, let’s think different!
So nowadays when people ask me 'what is neuroethics', I kindly direct them to the Instagram page of ‘Neuroethics Today’ because sometimes nonverbal methods convey information far better than words will ever do.
I invite you to join me in this Ethics Communication or #EthComm practice. What does Ethics Communication look like to you?