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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Neuroscience Coverage: Media Distorts, Bloggers Rule

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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, BrainFacts.org—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

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

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