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Neuroscience Coverage: Media Distorts, Bloggers Rule

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Media Hype and the Brain

Brain as Icon

“Superwoman has been rumbled,” declared a Daily Telegraph article in 2001 that chronicled how the human brain’s inability to “multitask” undercuts the prospects for a woman to juggle career and family with any measure of success. The brain as media icon has emerged repeatedly in recent years as new imaging techniques have proliferated—and, as a symbol, it  seems to confuse as much as enlighten.

The steady flow of new studies that purport to reduce human nature to a series of illuminated blobs on scanner images have fostered the illusion that a nouveau biological determinism has arrived. More often than not, a “neurobiological correlate”— tying together brain activity with a behavioral attribute (love, pain, aggression)—supplies the basis for a journal publication that translates instantly into a newspaper headline. The link between blob and behavior conveys an aura of versimilitude that often proves overly seductive to the reporter hard up to fill a health or science quota. A community of neuroscience bloggers, meanwhile, has taken on the responsibility of rectifying some of these misinterpretations.

A study published last week by University College of London researchers—“Neuroscience in the Public Sphere”—tried to imbue this trend with more substance by quantifying and formally characterizing it. “Brain-based information possesses rhetorical power,” the investigators note. “Logically irrelevant neuroscience information [the result of the multitude of correlations that turn up] imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.”

The study, a content analysis of three broadsheets and three tabloids in Great Britain that spanned the political spectrum from right to left, found the number of neuroscience-related articles climbed steadily overall from January of 2000 to the end December in 2010, nearly doubling, despite drops in 2007 and 2010. Most compelling was the classification of the newspaper stories into three broad memes.

—The Brain as Capital: As the repository of self—a secular surrogate for the soul—the brain is a resource to be optimized through pills, food and training—and, not least, parenting: a consultation with the neuro literature before deciding on the proper punishment for your child? The ever-present theme of brain training methods, for which little proof exists, consumed untold linear inches in news articles throughout the 2000s. “…by stretching the brain with regular crossword and sudoku puzzles, you can make your brain appear up to 14 [count them] years younger.”—Daily Mail, Sept. 13, 2005.

—The Brain as Index of Difference: In this narrative, neuroscience explains distinctions among groups, that men and women are wired differently, and that drug addicts, criminals, gays and the obese are special in ways that correspond to prevailing stereotypes. “Addiction is viewed as a mental disorder, and gays are known to be at higher risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm and drug abuse. Most studies suggest that these problems are brought on by years of discrimination and bullying. But there is another controversial thesis—that gays lead inherently riskier lives. Gambling stimulates the dopamine system in the brain; illicit drugs pep up the same system. Are gays dopamine junkies?—Times, Dec. 18, 2006.

—The Brain as Biological Proof: The neurobiological basis for a behavior—often a brain region that lights up during the course of a particular task—is taken as a means to establish a  “rightful place in the natural order.” Back to super heros: “Superwoman has been rumbled. Juggling a career and an active social life is quite literally a waste of time, according to scientists. A study reveals today that attempting several tasks at once is inefficient and could even be dangerous. The findings challenge the notion of women ‘having it all’.”‑Daily Telegraph, Aug. 6, 2001.

The authors conclude that, though it was impossible to determine precisely how the original studies and the media coverage diverged, their analysis confirmed that “research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas.” The study ends with an entreaty that researchers should come forward at the time of publication to elucidate ways in which their work could be misused “as a vehicle for espousing particular values, ideologies or social divisions”—and to ensure that policy debates surrounding neuroscience remain substantive and bereft of rhetorical fluff.

The study pinpoints an undeniable tendency toward neurohype. But the bigger picture transcends the oversimplifying that occurs in the popular media. For the truly interested amateur brain buff, more information—more good (and free) information—exists today than at any point since Santiago Ramón y Cajal penned his stunning line drawings of neurons.

In fact, there has never been a better time for the brain aficionado. The best among the contingent of expert bloggers that read and critique the neuroscience literature approximates a cadre of investigative reporters armed with PhDs in psychology and physiology. Scientific American’s own Scicurious penned a blog on May 2 that describes how a study on high-fat diets and depression that received coverage in the general media could have been much better than it was.

This isn’t an advertisement for ourselves. There are plenty of others worthy of mention who do not count in the Scientifc American stable of bloggers. Neuroskeptic logged in on the same day as Scicurious with an excellent entry on how fMRI studies could be giving false-positive results. And the combing of the literature for what’s important is another service to be had for nothing more than the price of a monthly Internet IP provider. I found “Neuroscience in the Public Sphere” after reading Neurobonkers, an anonymous freelance science writer who flagged the study in his blog. Outside (or maybe even inside) of a graduate-school seminar, this kind of information is really hard to come by. (Also this just in for neurophiles: the giga site,—a joint venture of the Kavli Institute, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Society for Neuroscience—is scheduled to launch on Monday morning, a repository for all things brain.)

Quibbles abound from the standpoint of journalistic convention: some neuro bloggers remain behind the wall of a pseudonym. And, of course, the question can be asked about whether you can trust the bona fides of any given writer who hangs out a cyber shingle. But the same sort of query, as the University College of London researchers point out, can be directed in spades toward the Daily Mail or The Times. And, if you’re asking for my vote on who to trust for a verdict on Super Woman and brain games, I’d pick Scicurious and Neuroskeptic any day.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 1:05 am 05/5/2012

    Still neuroscientists must also be held at least partly responsible as long as they’re providing information to journalists.

    Moreover, the news articles I read seem to most often indicate that most studies apply to a very small (~10-15) subject population of volunteer very young adult students, and that results are generalized to represnt the entire human population. But perhaps I’ve simply been misled by journalists?

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  2. 2. rosabw 4:54 pm 05/5/2012

    What I don’t understand is how a neuroscientist with any type of practice has the time to blog. Too, I find the bobble-headed baby scientists amusing, as they commiserate of the ignorance of everyone else in the world, while they hold sarcasm contests to determine who is the most rational.

    Over a billion dollars has been spent on determining the etiology of autism, ie, “the billion dollar brain”, over the last 10 years. They only know what doesn’t cause it.

    I wish to God someone would use their brains to learn something. Just sayin…

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  3. 3. CherryBombSim 10:14 am 05/6/2012

    It seems to me like there are two kinds of science bloggers. There are people who are basically newspaper science writers transplanted to cyberspace, and there are what I would call “technical” bloggers who are active scientists and blog about their own work. The second kind of blog is fabulous for keeping up with developments and expanding your knowledge in a field you have already studied rigorously, but the first type is just the same ol’ science reporting. Useful for links to actual papers if they have them, but take what is in the blog itself with a grain of salt. To be honest, Scientifc American blogs tend to be mostly the first kind. I come over here to read Tetrapod Zoology; occasionally I will click on something else out of curiosity about the title of a post, but my forehead is getting bruised.

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  4. 4. AndiKuszewski 3:45 pm 05/6/2012

    There are science bloggers without PhDs who do a fine job not only reporting on the science, but telling a compelling science story. Science writing nowadays isn’t *just* about breaking down an individual study; narrative is increasingly important, while still maintaining scientific accuracy. People don’t want ‘just the facts’… they want to be inspired. However, you need to do this while getting the science right– and you don’t need a PhD to do that. These stereotypes are getting tired. Give it up already.

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  5. 5. AndiKuszewski 3:48 pm 05/6/2012

    And regarding my previous comment: I’m a science blogger, and I don’t get too many people facepalming over my work. Nor do people say it’s boring. :)

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  6. 6. Metridia 6:49 pm 05/6/2012

    As all your examples show, actually this may be much more of a problem for the British press, which are usually terrible at reporting science- from top to bottom, from PhD writers to newsers. I have seen a physics PhD blithely, confidently butcher biological concepts and facts in a column written for one of the major UK newspapers, simply because the standards are not the same there- if it feels right to you at first blush, write it.
    One could even go further to say that most of your examples above are Murdoch properties to boot, and need I remind anyone about the lack of ethics at the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, etc.

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  7. 7. jstaf 11:28 am 05/9/2012

    Colorful images as the leading information passed onto the public isn’t unique to the neuroscience field. Years before cognitive neuroscience became the focus on my work, at my first job with NASA you could see that much of the public excitement was built around the incredible images from space.

    The “Blue Marble” is the prime example, that captured the public’s eye and created support for the research in areas of microelectronics and communications, much more important but hard or impossible to convey to an unscientific reader.

    In addition to fMRI’s, which have become the “Blue Marbles” of the neuroscience field, Nanotechnology is creating public awareness and interest through the amazing images of single molecules and atoms.

    I suppose there is the possibility of over hyping these areas, but in my view the danger of ignoring the value of core scientific research means that we will have non-scientific voters balking at the funding of projects that delivered much of the modern lives they are now enjoying, e.g.. Home Computers. Mobile Phones, The Internet and GPS…….

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  8. 8. LibraUES 10:27 pm 05/9/2012

    When we frame the findings of the London researchers in terms of the “Bloggers vs. Journalists” debate, we are missing the more important point. Regardless of the merits and weaknesses of sophisticated science-focused bloggers, the important — albeit obvious — finding here is that mainstream media tend to distort news that matter, including neuroscience research. Further thoughts posted on my blog

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  9. 9. embyr333 6:21 pm 05/10/2012

    “And the combing of the literature for what’s important is another service to be had for nothing more than the price of a monthly Internet IP provider.”

    It’s not quite as simple as that: access to the full text of most journal articles still reqiuires expensive subscriptions or per-article fees. Although many bloggers may have access to institutional subscriptions through their place of work, few without such connections could afford to pay for multiple subscriptions or article fees.

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