Sunday, February 19, 2017
Exhibit Hall (Hynes Convention Center)
Hugh Whittall, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London, England
Background Ideas about naturalness can underlie people’s opinions about science and technology and may influence the degree to which techniques to combat disease, assist conception or support food production, are embraced or opposed by the public. The UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics examined ideas about naturalness in order to inform future public debate about the ethics of science and technology. Method We gathered evidence by conducting: an analysis of uses of the terms ‘natural’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘nature’ in UK media articles, Parliamentary debates and the reports of civil society and science organisations and the extent to which these uses invoke ideas about value; a review of relevant academic research from a range of disciplines; and meetings with experts and members of the public. Results We identified many examples of ideas about naturalness being connected with value in debates on different scientific topics, including GM crops, assisted conception and cloning. For example: “Embryonic stem cell research is unethical, unnatural”. What is considered natural changes over time and people often appear to mean different things from one another when using these terms. We found that science organisations rarely connect naturalness with value. We identified five accounts of naturalness: 1) Wisdom of nature: ideas about respecting the reliability of natural processes; 2) Natural purpose: notions of what people, animals and plants are meant to do, grounded in evolved functions; 3) Disgust and monstrosity: responses of revulsion to scientific technologies; 4) God and religion: the idea that some science contravenes God’s will; and 5) Neutral/sceptical: scepticism about any strong link between naturalness and value. Conclusion The diverse set of ideas associated with naturalness may mean that people are speaking at cross-purposes when referring to naturalness in debates about science and technology. Effective public communication about science and technology may therefore be hindered by appeals to naturalness. We make a number of recommendations, including that policy-makers and science organisations should explore and engage with the values and beliefs underlying references to naturalness to ensure the views of different people are fully understood, debated, and taken into account.