The cover of today’s New York Times Science Times section carries two stories, a feature and a column, concerning the ultimate limitation of science: that it can tell us what our options are (or might be) in the face of certain problems, but not which one to exercise. Where the reporter understands full well that she is writing about ethical choices, however, the columnist, seemingly, does not.
Cornelia Dean’s lead story, about the ethical dilemmas involved in implementing, and even studying, “geoengineering” strategies to mitigate global warming, is an excellent example of covering the morality angle in science journalism. John Tierney’s column calling for the legalization of doping in sports, on the other hand, is an example of a piece that misses a beat. It’s not Tierney’s position that bothers, but his failure to lay bare the ethical rationale behind his argument in way that would be helpful to readers.
In June, I wrote about how journalists must cover the moral questions revolving around what to do (or not do) about climate change. Science journalists are responsible for explaining how science informs the decision-making process, but also for delineating where objective reasoning ends and subjective answers begin.
Dean’s feature fulfills this charge. Rather than going through the technical aspects of geoengineering strategies like launching sun-reflecting mirrors into space, her article focuses on the ethical implications of such technologies:
Ethical and philosophical issues have long occupied biotechnology, where institutional review boards commonly rule on proposed experiments and advisory committees must approve the use of gene-splicing and related techniques
But such questions are relatively new for scientists and engineers in other fields. Some are calling for the same kinds of discussion that microbiologists organized in 1975 when the immense power of emerging knowledge of gene-splicing or recombinant DNA began to dawn on them.
As Dean observes, every geoengineering scheme so far envisioned “would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo.” The real question, then, involves the levels and types of risk are we willing to assume given different sets of circumstances and degrees of scientific uncertainty. Journalists need to explain and account for those variables in a variety of scenarios. Given a 50 percent chance of a one-foot rise in sea level by 2099, for example, is the public willing to take a 50 percent chance of precipitating an uncontrollable algal bloom in the oceans by fertilizing them with iron?
Actually, and fortunately, we haven’t come to the point where the public, or journalists, must really turn to such endgame questions. One of the most interesting points that Dean makes in her column is that scientists are still grappling with the ramifications of even broaching certain studies:
[R]esearchers working in geoengineering say the worry that if people realize there are possible technical fixes for global warming, they will feel less urgency about reducing greenhouse gas emissions On the other hand, some climate scientists argue that if people realized such drastic measures were on the horizon, they would be frightened enough to reduce their collective carbon footprint. Still others say that, given the threat global warming poses to the planet, it would be unethical not embark on the work needed to engineer possible remedies
Unfortunately, none of this ethical nuance can be found in Tierney’s column advocating the legalization of performance-enhancing drugs and other treatments in sports. Again, it is not the position that he takes that casts a shadow on his work. One year ago, during the Tour de France, I wrote a column about what one longtime sports writer called the “shockingly fashionable” opinion among journalists that athletic authorities should at least consider legalizing doping. The problem with Tierney’s piece, rather, is that he does a disservice to readers by not explaining how he cleared the ethical hurdles that have, historically, buttressed anti-doping arguments.