Science and the press: Who’s to blame?

There’s an interesting article in the New Yorker today about Neuroscience called ‘Neuroscience Fiction’, which comments about the recent fashion for neuro-everything: neuroeconomics, neuroethics, etc. etc.  Perhaps, finally, we’re beginning to reach the end of this trend?  The article implies that we are, which is good news — yet this doesn’t erase the fact that the past two decades of this indicate science is becoming increasingly dominated by what sells rather than by what is useful.

That article links to another by Alissa Quart which has an interesting quote on this:

“A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.

The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, creating phenomena like neuro law, which, in part, uses the evidence of damaged brains as the basis for legal defense of people accused of heinous crimes, or neuroaesthetics, a trendy blend of art history and neuroscience.”

In science we’re very quick to blame the science journalists for willfully distorting research to make headlines.  Yet as Alissa points out, the researchers themselves are the ones pushing a fair bit of this nonsense — and they don’t necessarily speak up when their findings hit the headlines, distorted or not.  We’re in an environment where competition for funding is paramount, where permanent jobs are scarcer than ever, and where the pressure to find a unique niche is extremely high as a result — so creating that niche sometimes becomes more critical than performing good research.  We sometimes end up trying to squeeze together whatever ideas we can find into a lump just big enough to produce another published paper, then see how far we can milk it.

Speaking personally I know that I roll my eyes whenever I see one of the endless procession of papers in my field that applies autopoiesis to everything in the world ever.  I believe it’s part of the same process, on the whole, and it’s something we need to find a way to curtail.

With that in mind, where do our responsibilities lie here?  Do we call out our colleagues when they do dumb stuff, or do we direct our ire at nonsense only when it hits the popular press?  Do we try to keep our own community in line, and in doing so risk alienation (a true disaster for those of us low on the career ladder desperate for networking opportunities)?

It’s a difficult question.  After all, many of our colleagues do dumb stuff because they believe that dumb stuff, and so taking them to task over it is very unlikely to be productive.  I know I’ve certainly decided that someone is a jerk when they criticised me for reasons I believed to be ill-founded.  In the end, my paper stayed how it was, and the only thing that changed was that I resolved never to endorse or otherwise encourage the work of that individual.

Of course, my paper may very well have been dumb and I just simply don’t see it, but even if that is the case at this point the vast majority of scientific papers are dumb and/or uninteresting — so where do we draw the line?  How do we pick the particularly egregiously dumb stuff out of the endless piles that science produces these days?  Isn’t a certain amount of dumbness a necessary precursor to doing something of greater interest, a byproduct of early explorations?

My feeling is that science is now reaching a critical decision point in this respect.  Last year the UK alone published 124,000 journal articles.  Out of those, I expect we could skip at least 99% of these without losing much — very few papers have truly ground-breaking results to report.  At some stage we have to find a way to reduce this pressure to publish anything and everything at all costs, or we will simply drown in the resulting mess — and all the while, unscrupulous types will craft some of that mess into misleading headlines to make a buck or to build a reputation.

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