This material is designed to provide assistance to those involved in ethics education in physics. It is not intended to be a complete discussion of all topics in ethics relevant to the physics community. Rather, it is designed to give the reader some feel for the breadth of relevant topics, to point the reader towards useful resources, and to suggest ways in which this material could be addressed in a classroom setting.
The underlying premise of this work is that much has already been written about ethics in physics, but most of this existing material is not readily located by searching on the...
The underlying premise of this work is that much has already been written about ethics in physics, but most of this existing material is not readily located by searching on the terms “ethics” and “physics”. These chapters will not describe ethical issues and case studies in detail but instead will point the reader to sources that do supply the more detailed perspective. The intent is to identify resources that can conveniently be used as reading assignments in undergraduate or graduate level physics classes. Part of the challenge in making ethical decisions is dealing with the complexity that real-world situations introduce. For that reason, where possible sources in which physicists describe cases they have had personal experience with will be used.
Incorporated into the description of each resource will be suggestions on how to run a class discussion based on the material. It is hard to over-emphasize the usefulness of guided classroom discussion as a means for providing multiple perspectives and further insight into ethical issues. It is helpful to ground these discussions in the professional codes discussed in Chapter 1.
Chapter 0: Introduction: Pedagogy and Assessment
Using case studies
Managing class discussions
Other activities to engage the mind
About this guide
Chapter 1: Ethical Codes
Section 1.1: Introduction
Section 1.2: The American Physical Society Guidelines on Ethics
Section 1.3: Other American Institute of Physics codes
Section 1.4: Physics codes outside of the United States
Section 1.5: Codes from other fields
Section 1.6: Ethical standards implied by institutional policies
Section 1.7: Human subjects research issues: sometimes overlooked in physics
Chapter 2: Laboratory Practices
Section 2.1 Introduction
Section 2.2: Research misconduct and how it harms the scientific community
Section 2.3: Carelessness and how it harms the scientific community
Section 2.4: Computational physics
Section 2.5: Laboratory safety
Section 2.6: How common is research misconduct in physics?
Chapter 3: Data: Recording, Managing, and Reporting
Section 3.1: Introduction
Section 3.2: The lab notebook
Section 3.3: Data management and archiving
Section 3.4: Digital images
Section 3.5: Reporting results
Section 3.6: Case studies
Chapter 4: Publication Practices
Section 4.1: Introduction
Section 4.2: Authorship
Section 4.3: Citations
Section 4.4: Plagiarism
Section 4.5: Self-plagiarism, dual submission, and fragmented publication
Section 4.6: Errata and retractions
Section 4.7: Conflicts of interest
Section 4.8: Publication metrics
Section 4.9: Journal quality
Section 4.10: Publication in the electronic age
Chapter 5: Peer Review
Section 5.1: Introduction
Section 5.2: Fairness
Section 5.3 Participation
Section 5.4: Timeliness
Section 5.5: Confidentiality
Section 5.6: Conflicts of interest
Section 5.7: Career advancement
Section 5.8: Textbooks
Chapter 6: Underrepresented Groups in Physics
Section 6.1: Introduction—The need for diversity
Section 6.2: Statistics
Section 6.3: APS policy statements
Section 6.4: Explicit bias
Section 6.5: Systemic bias
Section 6.6: Implicit bias
Section 6.7: Programs of the American Physical Society and other organizations
Section 6.8: Role models
Chapter 7: Physics and Military Research
Section 7.1: Introduction
Section 7.2: The Manhattan Project
Section 7.3: The Strategic Defense Initiative
Section 7.4: Arms control in the age of nuclear weapons
Section 7.5: Dual-use technology
Section 7.6: General discussion prompts for the entire chapter
Chapter 8: Climate Change
Section 8.1: Introduction
Section 8.2: Observational data
Section 8.3: Some elements in a climate model
Section 8.4: Global Climate Models
Section 8.5: Focused action
Section 8.6: Broader action on climate change
Chapter 9: Communicating Science to the General Public
Section 9.1: Introduction
Section 9.2: Communicating about climate change
Section 9.3: Communicating with the media
Section 9.4: Communicating with political leaders
The APS has a Statement on Civil Engagement that begins, “The American Physical Society applauds its members who have helped ensure that public policy decisions are informed by sound scientific analysis. APS encourages its members to take advantage of opportunities for civic engagement drawing on their experience, whether through public or government service, by providing advice and information to government officials, or by contributing to public debate.” In this chapter, the term “the public” will be used to describe those people without a strong scientific background. The APS statement calls on physicists to communicate with the public on issues that have a scientific component. This chapter will focus on the challenges in engaging in such communication and the skills that can help a physicist meet those challenges.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has a comprehensive communication toolkit on their website. Their suggestions include reversing the order of presentation when communicating science to the public: begin with the conclusion and follow with supporting details. The toolkit has sections on topics such as online communications, working with journalists, and engaging people through individual public presentations or participation in panel discussions. These individual pages have links to further information sources. Taken together, this body of information is probably too large to be explored in its entirety in preparation for a classroom discussion. It will likely be necessary to focus on a few of the pages or to divide the class and have each group read different sections.
A number of more concise readings are available as well. A Scientific American blog entry focuses on writing effective op-ed pieces. Saperstein has a short essay on his collaboration with several other people to put together a panel discussion road show on issues related to nuclear weapons. He also describes seeking out opportunities for individual presentations. An article by Pierson describes research into why people, at times, seem to reject scientific information. He notes that research suggests presenting scientific information on a contentious issue can lead to increased polarization rather than consensus. He then discusses implications of this research for trying to create at least some limited consensus in the political realm. Aurbach et al. argue that an essential element to effective scientific communication with the public is identification of a single, clear message for the communication to focus on. They describe a three-minute exercise, modified from an improvisational theater technique, to generate a concise statement of the core message one intends to communicate. This statement can then be used to guide the development of the entire presentation, thus avoiding overloading the audience with unnecessary information.
The National Academies report, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, takes a comprehensive look at science communication. Two passages in Chapter 1 are particularly relevant to a discussion of ethics in physics. Pages 11-12 provide a concise discussion of different forms of scientific communication and broad issues that arise when scientists try to communicate with the public. Pages 17-22 explore the different goals scientists may have while communicating to the public, ethical issues that may arise during the communication, and why simplistic models of the nature of this type of communication need to be discarded. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 explore in more detail issues that were raised or only hinted at in Chapter 1. Reading all three of these chapters is probably going to be too much for a typical undergraduate class assignment. However, most sections in these chapters can be read independently, so an instructor can pick out a few topics that are likely to be most relevant to their students. Most of these sections outline both what is understood about a particular aspect of science communication and what is not yet understood. For instance, in Chapter 2, the report discusses research on how people respond to in-person engagement with scientists but then goes on to point out that little is understood about how people respond to efforts to engage with scientists on larger scales, such as through public online events. Chapter 5 focuses on research questions in the field of science communication. While interesting to read, it may not have much immediate relevance to a discussion of ethics. Astbury and Hines wrote a review of this National Academies report, arguing that although some parts were helpful, others were outdated. They describe a case in Great Britain where the public was engaged to help shape guidelines regarding nanoparticle research, and they argue that there should be more of this type of interaction between scientists and the public.
Public perception of the science of climate change provides a useful case study on the role communication plays in the formation of public opinion. Somerville and Hassol describe mistakes scientists commonly make when communicating directly to the public. In particular, they argue that scientists need to make different word choices when speaking to people without a strong scientific background and need to organize their presentations differently for the general public. Their paper uses climate change as its primary example, and it includes a good overview of both the scientific consensus on climate change and the US public perception of climate change.
For a more formal approach to communication on climate change, see the paper by Wong-Parodi and de Bruin. They describe a structured approach in which the goals of the communication are established, the target audience is characterized, materials for communicating to the audience are developed, tested, and delivered, and the target audience is assessed to determine the effectiveness of the communication. The authors also identify five maxims for scientific communication: (1) It should be accurate. (2) It should be limited to the information that is needed by the target audience. (3) It should be relevant to the decisions the target audience will be making. (4) It should use language that is understandable. (5) The communication materials should be tested for effectiveness.
There is also narrowly focused research on communicating the science of climate change. For instance, Goldberg et al. looked that the role of the communication mode when the desired message was that 97% of climate science experts agree that the planet is warming due to human activity. Having members of the public read about this produced some favorable results, but a thirty-second video on the topic was significantly more effective. This paper is useful not only for this specific result but also in its discussion of strategy: the authors describe research on the Gateway Belief Model suggesting that acceptance of key information by an individual, such as the scientific consensus on climate change, opens the door to that person modifying their perspective on a larger array of climate-related issues.
A commentary by Massonnet outlines ways in which the study of the earth’s climate is a complex problem. The commentary includes summaries on the challenges of climate science not being a traditional laboratory science, the complexity of the Earth’s climate, and the inability to acquire as much data as one would like. The commentary concludes with a discussion on the need for improving communications with the public and in particular being attuned to the specific needs of the target audience.
A commentary by Brown shows how a single data set (related to a heat wave in North Carolina) can be justifiably used to generate three very different sounding conclusions in the form of hypothetical headlines. The mathematical analysis by Brown is straightforward but serves to remind students that it is important to represent the results of an analysis fairly and that it is important to dig deeper into brief summaries in order to understand how the results were obtained.
An article by Matheson looks at the importance of all scientists communicating with the public about their research. This is especially important for those whose research is publicly funded. The author suggests that spending time getting to know some science writers will help. By honing one’s storytelling skills, a scientist can turn an advanced intellectual presentation into a narrative that engages a broader audience.
Employers often place restrictions on the nature of employee interactions with the media. A common example of a restriction is forbidding employees to indicate their affiliation with the employer when speaking about political issues. Restrictions also commonly limit the conditions under which an employee can be interviewed by a member of the press regarding their work. For an example of this, see Fermilab’s policy on Stakeholder Relations and Communication. 
The New England Journal of Medicine strongly discourages researchers from using press conferences to discuss their findings prior to the findings being published in a peer-reviewed journal. In fact, their Ingelfinger Rule indicates they will not ordinarily consider for publication research that has been published elsewhere, including in nonscientific media. The rule makes exceptions for results that would have an immediate impact on public health and for results discussed at research conferences that are covered by science journalists. An editorial discussing the rationale for this rule is of relevance to ethics in physics, despite the editorial’s obvious focus on medical research. This essay makes brief references to examples where premature dissemination by press conference led to significant misinformation being conveyed to the public. One of the cases they refer to is cold fusion, discussed in Section 2.3 of this Instructor’s Guide.
To get a quick look from the science writers’ perspective, see the code of ethics from the National Association of Science Writers. The code does not contain any big surprises, but physicists interacting with the media can benefit from knowing what standards the National Association of Science Writers holds.
Sometimes a story that is reported in the news media gets amplified and repeated for long periods of time before it gets sufficiently fact checked. One example of this from the scientific realm was the claim that in order to maintain one’s health, one must drink at least eight eight-ounce servings of water per day, and it must be plain, unflavored water. Scientists can help correct the record when the media have gone astray. Valtin wrote a review article on this topic, finding no scientific studies to support the 8x8 rule. The article examines potential benefits and risks to drinking large quantities of water and debunks several related myths. A quick Internet search will now show a large number of references to the 8x8 rule as having been debunked.
Dumas-Mallet et al. did a study of newspaper coverage of biomedical findings. Although the focus is not on physics research, the message is still relevant to the physics community. The authors found that newspaper articles often did not address the issues of uncertainty and the need for replication. Moreover, the authors suggest that the increased emphasis on scientists publicizing their findings may be in part responsible for hyped headlines. Some passages in the paper are heavier in statistical analysis than the typical undergraduate physics student may be comfortable with, but these can be skimmed without loss of the overall message.
While scientists have all of the usual opportunities to provide advice to elected officials (sending emails and letters, attending forums, arranging for meetings, etc.), there are some additional, more structured opportunities for the voice of scientists to be heard. Bandyopadhyay wrote a commentary on the importance of scientists playing a role in policy making, evidence that scientists can be influential, and ways that individual scientists can become actively involved.
Troyer wrote of his experience as an AIP Mather Science Policy Intern during his undergraduate years. This program pays for two undergraduate physics students to be interns in Congressional offices. He notes that while only some of his work drew on his scientific background, the experience was invaluable in educating him about how things get done in Washington and how much influence congressional staffers can have. Physicists with a PhD have similar opportunities through both the American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics. A short Physics Today article gives further insight into the Congressional Fellowship experience.
Numerous examples of physicists playing a formal or informal role in advising policy makers exist. For instance, Zimmerman wrote of his efforts to prevent Department of Defense money being wasted on a research program he found to be fundamentally flawed. The program was examining the potential for bombs to use hafnium as an energy source. Additional background on the underlying experiments can be found in a Physics Today article. While there have been some developments since the Zimmerman article indicating continued controversy, that does not detract from its message: it is important to do what you can to influence science policy, even when the process for change is frustratingly slow.
Herbert York, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, wrote about multiple roles he had in science advising in Making Weapons, Talking Peace. In Chapter 11, he described testifying before a Senate committee and serving on the General Advisory Committee for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Presidential Science Advisory Council, and Jason, a government funded think tank. During this time, York was involved with issues such as nonproliferation, antiballistic missile limitations, and the Vietnam War. The chapter looks at the mix of political and technical issues and at ethical concerns that arise when one disagrees with some of the policies of an administration they are involved with. The first five pages of Chapter 12 recount York testifying before Congress on two occasions as someone not employed by the government. York sensed that, as an outsider, he made considerably less impact with his testimony. York was also involved in negotiating arms control treaties. The role of physicists in addressing issues related to arms control has been covered in Section 7.4 of this Instructors Guide.
The author is grateful for the time and effort of the anonymous reviewers of this work, and for their numerous helpful suggestions.
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