Friday, May 25, 2012

What the Large Print Sayeth the Small Print Denieth

(by guest blogger Carrie Figdor)

In my last post I noted how professional science journals and other peer-reviewed venues coopt folk-psychological terms to report experimental results. Popular science reporters are not introducing these terms as metaphors to describe neuroscience results in laymen's terms; the laymen's terms are right there in the original articles. Nevertheless, it is a common response to blame public misunderstanding of science results either on the popular science press, or on the public's lack of science education, or both.

For example, Racine and colleagues (2005) coined the term "neuro-realism" to label the way popular science coverage of fMRI studies "can make a phenomenon uncritically real, objective or effective in the eyes of the public." One of their examples of neuro-realism is a 2004 report in The Boston Globe: "[B]ecause fMRI investigation shows activation in reward centers when subjects ingest high-fat foods, one reads, 'Fat really does bring pleasure'." But after examining how the term "reward" is used in peer-reviewed neuroscience articles, it is not clear why the Globe reporter is thought to be miscommunicating the science, let alone responsible for the miscommunication.

Similarly, if adding neuro-babble to an excerpt of a psychological explanation makes non-experts rate the explanation more highly (Skolnick Weisberg et al. 2008), shouldn't the response be: "Hey, we're the gods of knowledge about reality! Maybe, just maybe, with great power comes great responsibility -- including responsibility for our language!" The public might well be excused from not being able to distinguish added neuro-babble ("Brain scans indicate that the "curse" happens because of the frontal lobe circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge") from serious claims in research articles ("Several fMRI studies reported increased prefrontal and parietal activity during lie ... Based on these findings, deception has been conceptualized as inhibition of truth and generation of lie mediated by the prefrontal cortex, with truth being a “routine” response mediated by the posterior structures." (Langleben et al. 2005)

Instead, where popular science reporters may be blameworthy is in their abdication of their role as professional skeptics. In a 2006 analysis of 134 popular science articles on fMRI studies -- appearing in the popular press between 1994-2004 -- Racine and colleagues found that "the vast majority of articles (n = 104, 79 percent) were uncritical in tone, whereas twenty-eight (21 percent) were balanced or critical", and that specialized sources were less critical than general news sources. In short, the ferociously aggressive skepticism to which political stories and figures are routinely subjected by the press is nowhere to be found. The Scientific American spoof may be a sign that this free ride is about to end.


Unknown said...

Great point! If only scientists and science writers were forced to start as philosophy majors (at least as minors)...but then again, science writing might be less interesting if they were.

Carrie Figdor said...

Thanks -- there's certainly room for greater cooperation among all of them. Illes et al. (2010) (Nature Reviews Neuroscience) proposes that some neuroscientists be especially trained in communication issues, which I consider a great idea.