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Bioethics Expertise In The Media of Public Opinion

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Over the last few months the bioethics wires have been ablaze with conversations about the McMath and Munoz cases. Much of the internal (to bioethics) furor has been over the lack of understanding of death by the public and the media. A thread of debate has been whether those in bioethics reached out enough to journalists and the media to help them to be more accurate in reporting and to educate the public. Bioethics has always had a complicated relationship with the media—those in the field are often sought out for commentary on current events, and those who do are often criticized for reducing complex issues into sound bites. The reality is that reality doesn’t matter anymore in the media.

About 15 years ago I left the world of technology journalism because those of us with science writing specialties were increasingly having our work overruled by business decisions. In the case that sent me to graduate school, I was told I had to change a story because the company I was discussing had bought an ad in our publication. As newsrooms shrank, the well-versed science journalist became a rarer thing—they cost more than the average reporter and they weren’t as flexible. A generalist reporter can cover most anything, but a science reporter could not be sent to cover the school board or a fire.

Besides being an economic phenomenon, it also a change in the notion of what it means to be an expert—someone who has a better understanding of the facts and can provide an educated analysis. In an age of anti-elitism, everyone is viewed as equal, especially if they are unequal in education, experience, training, and analytical ability. When we all have access to the knowledge of the universe in a few keystrokes, who needs to talk to a so-called “expert.” The truth is just a web search away.

The result is that news is now about reporting opinions instead of facts. For example, a flurry of reports have been released in the last few months discussing the fact that there is great income inequality and a growing gap between haves and have nots.  A recent Oxfam report shoeds that the wealthiest 85 people in the world control more wealth than the bottom 50%. Those 85 alone control 46% of all wealth in the world. My local newspaper report on this topic was not about this report and what it might mean, but rather a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today that says “two-thirds of all American agree that the income gap has increased in the past ten years.” What took me aback was why this was news at all. The fact of increasing income equality has been established. Why is opinion newsworthy?

Watching television news is no better. Regular segments include polls of viewers as to whether an alleged criminal is “guilty” before a trial. And for Congress and the President, there is no discussion over doing the right thing, or helping the country, it’s all about dropping opinion scores. Even scientific facts are up for the court of public expertise: evolution is only true to two-thirds of Americans.  So what? A fact is true whether it is believed or not.

Somewhere back in my education, I learned about something called a logical fallacy, which is an error in reasoning where one tries to convince others of a point of view using bad reasoning. And among the logical fallacies is appeal to popular opinion. Basically, just because a large majority believes something is right (or true) does not make it so. The group may often be wrong. For example, before Columbus’ mythic voyage, the vast majority of Europeans thought the world was flat. Despite the overwhelming belief in this “reality” it was not true. Another such truth can be found in U.S. history, despite popular belief as espoused by Wadsworth, Paul Revere never said “The redcoats are coming.”

I am confounded as to why the media has turned to proving their headlines by relying on logical fallacies.  Perhaps it’s easier (and cheaper) to conduct a survey poll than to find out what happened. Or this movement may represent what one author has called, the death of expertise. This is the notion that everyone’s opinion is equal no matter his or her level of knowledge, skill, training, or experience. If everyone’s analysis and thought is the equal to everyone else’s, then there’s no need to investigate, talk to experts, and discern facts—it’s all just opinions and they are all equally right.

Bioethics is especially vulnerable to this charge. People who work in bioethics claim expertise in moral and ethical decision-making, something that all people do throughout their lives. Many articles have been published in both the popular and professional press that argue against the expertise of the person in bioethics. One popular article even warns that one must not give greater weight to the opinion of a bioethics expert than to anyone else—mainly because we are asked to comment on medicine and science, activities about which we talk but in which many of us do not practice. In court, bioethics’ testimony has been dismissed because his or her statements were just opinions, not referrals to ethical standards created and enforced by practitioners. Even bioethicists have written about those in the field not having moral expertise, skills or knowledge and yet demanding the power of being viewed as an expert in the public sphere.

Even if there was agreement about an expertise within in bioethics, then we might be vulnerable to another logical fallacy, “appeal to authority.” Just because an expert says something is right does not make it so. So even with expert analyses and opinions, the media still needs to report the facts.

In addition to educating the media and the public about such as issues as death, we need to be putting out press releases that say “90% of bioethics professionals believe that life ends at brain death.” With the power of statistics, even the public may overcome its doubt about any sort of bioethics expertise. We might actually get more space in the press and have greater influence in the court of public debate. Ironically, the way to educate others may be to commit a logical fallacy ourselves.

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