Thursday, June 28, 2012

The [insert adjective] Brain: Implications for Neuroscience in Popular Media

The Addicted Brain. The Female Brain. The Male Brain. Chemobrain. Buddha’s Brain. The Winner’s Brain. The Republican Brain. These days, it seems that everybody’s brain is being scanned and their behavior analyzed. In fact, these are all titles of books published in the past decade that communicate the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology research to lay audiences. As a budding neuroscientist, I am excited that science, and neuroscience in particular, has now flooded into popular American culture. Evidence of its expanding domain is everywhere: in magazines (Scientific American’s “MIND”), blogs (Neuroskeptic), radio programs (NPR’s “Radiolab”), podcasts (Nature’s “Neuropod”) and books. For further examination of the reasons for this cultural shift, see the discussion of the phenomenon in the new book “Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media,” by Davi Johnson Thorton, Southwestern University's Assistant Professor of Communication Studies.

I’m hopeful that this increase in neuroscience reporting will precipitate more public support for neuroscience research (as well as for other fields, of course), funding for and enrollment in STEM education, and improvements in scientific literacy among the American public (whose children currently rank 23rd out of 30 in science achievement scores among OECD nations [PISA 2009]); however, after sampling and digesting a smorgasbord of popular neuroscience reporting, my idealism is tempered with concern. While independent book authors and magazine editors have often received formal scientific training, many others lack the expertise required to accurately interpret science. In addition, media pundits are typically affiliated with corporate news agencies or non-profit groups that carry sociopolitical agendas, resulting in consistently biased reporting. With the advent of neuroimaging technologies, scientists are addressing highly evocative questions in neuroscience and psychology, such as the neurological underpinnings of political or sexual orientation, which the popular press is quick to pick up and spin for shock value. I will argue that the media’s frequent misrepresentation of neuroscience research poses serious threats to the public’s accurate understanding of the brain and human behavior, as well as to the neuroscientific community at large. Neuroscientists have an ethical responsibility to the public to promote fair and balanced reporting of their findings. I propose a first-step solution to this growing problem, wherein academic institutions support neuroscientists in developing an independent system of media fact-checking. Within this framework, neuroscientists can comment on the veracity of brain science reporting by the popular press.

Typically, more information is a good thing. In economics, having complete information about a product empowers the consumer to make more informed purchasing decisions and ultimately select the most suitable one. Science follows the same general principle: more data points equal more statistical power, allowing us to draw conclusions and generate theories. Once extensive data are compiled, conclusions reached, and theories refined, scientists are subjected to rigorous peer-review. Experts in each respective field meticulously verify a researcher’s claims and then either accept or reject her findings. Finally, theories are validated by other researchers’ attempts to reproduce the results or collect data that affirm or refute said theory. This empirical process forms the backbone of the modern scientific method. On this foundation, neuroscience can advance its theoretical framework explaining the brain’s structure and function.

In its truest form, journalism adheres to the same process. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth,” and is in essence a “discipline of verification.” More extensively, the PEJ’s Statement of Shared Purpose calls for:

“A consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work…Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. The discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction, or entertainment.”

These principles clearly fall in step with good science. Accuracy (rigorous data collection), transparency (comprehensive detail of materials and methods), objectivism (allowing data to speak for itself), and validation (inviting other experts to comment) form the basis of sound science and sound reporting. While this scientist believes that the scientific community has done well in adhering to these values and policing those who fall short (largely through the process of peer review), many in the journalistic community who report on neuroscience have repeatedly failed to hold themselves accountable to their self-proclaimed empirical ideals.

Neuroscience reporting has the potential to inspire and stimulate dialogue, often managing to do just that. Part of my decision to undertake a PhD in neuroscience hinged upon the intriguing pieces I picked up on through radio and print, such as NPR’s “Radiolab,” or specialty magazines, like Scientific American MIND. Quality neuroscience reporting is typically written or edited by academics (Emory’s own Scott O. Lilienfeld edits SciAm MIND, for example) and is unencumbered by sociopolitical bias. Unfortunately, less informed or politically motivated approaches to neuroscience reporting seriously compromise the public and the research community in several ways.

Recent advances in neuroimaging technologies like fMRI and PET have enabled neuroscientists and psychologists to probe with ever-increasing accuracy the neurobiological underpinnings of human behavior. Often the most interesting research in the public eye is the most evocative. In the scientific literature, topics include the neural correlates of behavioral differences based on political affiliation, sexuality, morality, socioeconomic status, and race. For this reason, some media outlets are quick to pick up on and spin the results of such research to conform to the mores of their organizations and audiences. Poor neuroscience reporting tends to fall into one of two categories, depending on the degree to which the research aligns or misaligns with their ideologies. The “aligners” tend to hyperbolize scientific findings, overgeneralizing the scope and impact of the research, while the “maligners” discredit the findings or simply don’t report them. In extreme cases, maligners spew vitriol, exclaiming that neuroscientists are motivated by “eugenics” or “phrenology.”

A great example of this is the recent outrage expressed by the authors of “Science Left Behind,” Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, in response to a Huffington Post article entitled “Why Republicans Deny Science,” written by author and podcaster, Chris Mooney. In his article, Mooney cites recent findings from a handful of studies illustrating, among other things, that self-identified “conservatives” exhibit stronger physiological responses to aversive stimuli and have larger amygdala volumes (a part of the brain involved in fear-processing). While Mooney accurately reports the findings and believes that this sort of science “ought to prompt more tolerance and understanding across our political divides,” a seemingly noble cause, he ventures into overgeneralization by claiming that such research may help explain “the conservative denial of science.” Berezow and Campbell angrily counter by claiming that Mooney is a eugenicist who “distorts science in order to fit a preconceived narrative.” Libel among journalists is one thing, but when they target the scientific community, things get personal for this neuroscientist. USA Today’s Jonah Goldberg, in response to Mooney, asserts that this type of “fad” neuroscience research is really “the new science of conservative phrenology.” While Goldberg keenly points out the limitations of such studies, such as sampling bias and their lack of ecological validity, he erroneously implies that no valid conclusions can be drawn from them. Obviously, misreporting and mud slinging do not constitute “excellence in journalism.” If journalists want to engage in such unprofessionalism, can they please just leave neuroscience and the public out of it?

For non-scientists who rely on news media to communicate new science, overgeneralization by the press can mislead people to draw conclusions that may incorrectly or even dangerously influence their thinking and behavior. For instance, by contending that studies in social neuroscience demonstrate how personality traits and behaviors, such as political affiliation, are “hard-wired,” reporters (such as Goldberg) misrepresent science and promote public misconceptions about the brain. It is well accepted that the brain is highly organized in advance of experience, but I challenge you to find a psychologist who will concede that behavior is “hard-wired.” In fact, quite the opposite is true; the brain is plastic, continually reorganizing itself in response to the internal and external milieu. An overwhelming body of research supports the notion that our behavioral outputs are similarly malleable. I take issue with any popular news article, book title, or headline containing the hackneyed phrase, “the [insert adjective] brain,” on similar grounds. The nuance contained within the original research can never be distilled into a single compelling phrase about a group of people. Learning about the plight of another group, also known as "perspective-taking," can increase one’s empathy for and understanding of that group, and this type of research has the power to do just that; however, do pithy headlines and brief reports like these lead people to further stereotype and distance themselves from those who are portrayed as categorically and neurologically different?

Discrediting neuroscientific findings is similarly detrimental and promotes public distrust of neuroscience and the importance of such research in elucidating the neurological mechanisms underlying human thought and experience. Take Roger Scruton's recent article in The Spectator, which introduces terms like "neurobabble" and "neurononsense," in reference to studies that link social behaviors to their neurochemical correlates (think oxytocin and pair-bonding). Scruton voices skepticism about the extent to which neuroscience can uncover the seat of human consciousness. Don't get me wrong: dissenting opinions like these are important scientific debate. I agree with Scruton that the whole of human experience cannot be distilled into a "brain in a box" theory. Nevertheless, debasing cognitive science research as pseudoscientific nonsense fosters public distrust in the pursuit of scientific explanations of human behavior. The public rightly expects neuroscientists to pursue avenues of research with the potential to enhance their understanding of themselves and others, but reading Scruton's commentary may lead a non-scientist to ask himself, "why does the public fund this kind of research if it has no value whatsoever?"

Scientists have a lot to lose here. Most research in this country is publicly funded and relies on governmental support for its advancement. Distrust of the scientific community may lead policymakers and their constituents to further restrict our meager science budget and slash discretionary spending for science education. If we are to prevent ourselves from falling even further behind other nations in science achievement, neuroscientists must step in and advocate on behalf of their own research to assure that it is communicated accurately to the American public. As scientists, we strive to better our understanding of the human condition through our research with the end goal of improving health and well-being. It’s our responsibility to make sure that our findings are presented to the public in meaningful, accurate ways that clearly illustrate the implications of our work for their individual and collective lives. I believe that scientists are falling behind in this area. However, there is hope.

Such hope may exist in the new wave of dedicated neuroscience journalists, some of whom have received formal scientific training in academia and/or industry (consider Jonah Lehrer, for example, who formerly worked in the lab of Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel). This group of reporters can act as unofficial go-betweens, translating neuroscientific findings into widely accessible dialogue unencumbered by sociopolitical bias, just as the PEJ’s Statement of Purpose suggests. The hope also lies with neuroscientists themselves. Nowadays, researchers are burdened by budget constraints that have created more and more competition for grants (less than 20% of NIH grants are funded) and publications in order to secure tenure. Coupled with advising grad students, managing a lab, teaching undergraduate courses, and attending conferences, neuroscientists are extremely busy people. This leaves very little time to engage with the public, although many rock-star neuroscientists still make time to do this public service. Given the present economic and political climate, it is of utmost importance that neuroscientists are accurately portrayed as the beneficent agents of change and discovery that they actually are.

I propose two changes that neuroscientists and their institutions can enact to begin rectifying these problems in neuroscience reporting. The first is on a neuroscientific community-wide level, the second on an institutional level. With respect to the neuroscience community, I believe that an organization could be established to “fact-check” the media’s reporting of research findings. Specialists in a given field could comment openly and publicly on the veracity of journalistic reports, in similar fashion to’s fact-checking of political candidates’ public statements. Alternatively, websites like could be utilized more widely by researchers to make their ideas and findings readily accessible. Recent interest in open-access publishing for academic journals (see commentary in Science Magazine news) may be part of the solution; however, the esoteric language of research science may limit public gains from this strategy. Some neuroscientists directly engage with the public already, and are active on social networking sites like Twitter (see “Neuroscientists Who Tweet”), and I think this is a step in the right direction. On an institutional level, service and community outreach are encouraged for research faculty, and basically required for junior faculty seeking tenure. However, this could be better organized to encompass participation in fact-checking organizations or informational curation sites like Scholarpedia.

In summary, as lay interest in popular neuroscience continues to proliferate, journalists eschewing their obligation for fair and balanced reporting jeopardize both the public and the neuroscientific community. It is imperative that journalists recognize the importance of their position and act in accordance with their self-defined governing principles of ethics, as many already do. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that dissenting opinions are uncalled for. Rather they ought to avoid overgeneralization and discrediting. It is also incumbent upon scientists and the academy to engage the public in accurate, thoughtful, yet accessible dialogue about their research, and to find effective ways of doing so. Failure to do this has profound implications for the future of neuroscience research and science education in this country, and it is our ethical obligation to ensure that neuroscientists are portrayed as the good guys and gals they actually are.

Want to cite this post?
Kohn, J. (2012). The [insert adjective] Brain: Implications for Neuroscience in Popular Media. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


Shezza Shagarabi said...

What a relevant commentary on the state of neuroscience in the mind of the public. Far too many headlines portray neuroscience research in an inaccurate light. The solutions offered in this article are actually feasible. A fact-checking body on neuroscience reporting could in the long-run deter many media outlets from overgeneralizing or exaggerating research. Also, more transparency from neuroscientists themselves can aid in the accurate dissemination of findings,which if written well, can be just as well received by the public.

Neuroskeptic said...

Hey, good post.

"An organization could be established to “fact-check” the media’s reporting of research findings. Specialists in a given field could comment openly and publicly on the veracity of journalistic reports, in similar fashion to’s fact-checking of political candidates’ public statements."

To a large extent we already have this, in the form of neuroscientists commenting on blogs and social media. But it's not an organization, it's entirely decentralized. That has advantages and disadvantages, of course. Maybe some kind of clearinghouse would help?

David Nicholson said...

Hey, Jordan. I just want to echo everyone else and say a Politifact style site for neuroreporting sounds like a great idea. I'd love to see a Truth-O-Meter comparing popular press pieces about neuroscience research to the university press releases they're based on.

Cyd Cipolla said...

Yes. I also love this idea.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'd like to add that this gap in communication divides all fields of sciences from the lay persons. Science is fiction is so very popular because people love to let their imagination run wild about the unknown.

It would be great to have a body of scientists comment on the various press releases regarding scientific discoveries. Such a development would do wonders for science PR and help bridge the gap in the understanding of what is really happening in the world of the unknown mad scientists.