by Mo Costandi
Mo Costandi trained as a developmental neurobiologist and now works as a freelance writer based in London. His work has appeared in Nature, Science, and Scientific American, among other publications. He writes the Neurophilosophy blog, hosted by The Guardian, and is the author of 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need To Know, published by Quercus in 2013, and Neuroplasticity, forthcoming from MIT Press. Costandi also sits on the Board of Directors of the International Neuroethics Society.
In 2010, Judy Illes, president elect of the International Neuroethics Society, argued that neuroscientists need to communicate their research to the general public more effectively. Five years on, that message is still pertinent – and perhaps even more so.
Since then, public interest in neuroscience has continued to grow, but at the same time, coverage of brain research in the mass media is often inaccurate or sensationalist, and myths and misconceptions about the brain seem to be more prevalent than ever before, especially in areas such as business and education.
Why is this? And what can be done to remedy the situation? A handful of studies into how neuroscience is reported by the mass media and perceived by the public provide some answers – and reiterate the point made by Illes five years ago.
Several years ago, for example, researchers at University College London analysed nearly 3,000 articles about neuroscience research published in the three best-selling broadsheet and the three best-selling tabloid newspapers in the UK between 1st January 2000 and 31st December 2010.
They conclude that “research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas,” and that “neuroscientists should be sensitive to the social consequences neuroscientific information may have once it enters the public sphere.”
|Photo courtesy of Pexels
More recently, researchers in the Netherlands examined the reporting on neuroscience in Dutch newspapers. They found that the quality of the coverage depends largely on the time a paper is released, its topic, and the type of newspaper, and that the accuracy of reporting tended to be low, with free and popular newspapers in particular tending to provide a minimal amount of detail.
Researchers sometimes criticize journalists for reporting on neuroscience inaccurately, and press officers at academic institutions and scientific journals can also be subjected to criticism about over-hyped press releases, which are often the source of bad reporting. In one recent case, a correlation between high-strength marijuana and white matter integrity was widely reported as a causal relationship (compare the paper, the press release, and the subsequent media reports). But as another recent study showed, researchers are not entirely faultless, as they sometimes contribute to these processes by providing their press office with exaggerated information about their findings.
Accordingly, there are a number of things that researchers can do to counteract misrepresentations and misunderstanding of neuroscience. Paramount among these is that they communicate their own work and that of others as accurately as possible, without overstating their interpretation of any findings, and also emphasizing any limitations and caveats the research might have.
This mostly refers to interactions with journalists who are reporting on new findings, but growing numbers of researchers are taking to social media – especially blogs and Twitter – as a way of both engaging with the general public, and with each other, directly.
By disseminating accurate information, researchers may help improve the quality of reporting about neuroscience, and help to stem the tide of misunderstanding about the brain. And it could be argued that they have a moral responsibility to do so.
Want to cite this post?
Costandi, Mo (2015). Combating neurohype. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/12/combating-neurohype.html