A paper published today in the journal Neuron describes how the mainstream media (specifically the Daily TelegraphTimesDaily MailSunMirror  and the Guardian) have tackled the topic of neuroscience over the past decade. The paper is a damning indictment of how the press use neuroscience as a tool with which to “portray themselves as dispassionate” whilst preaching their trademark prejudices. The paper describes how the Telegraph used research to wrongly “assert that productive female participation in both the labor market and family life is neurobiologically impossible”, while the Daily Mail miscellaneously linked “women to irrationality” (amongst countless other crimes) and the Times absurdly squealed “are gays dopamine junkies?”. The paper lists a labyrinth of logical fallacies which the media use to misrepresent neuroscience, repeatedly highlighting a tendency for:

“overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications.”

The paper assessed the contents of nearly 3,000 articles involving neuroscience over the past decade to see which topics came up most. It’s not hard to see how the data is skewed by the media’s recent obsessions such as fish oil and narcotics. I’ve tossed the figures in to Manyeyes to make the information a little easier to digest:

Subjects Addressed within Media Coverage of Neuroscience

The paper concludes that the media has used neuroscience research “applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas”. Fighting this tidal wave is the precise reason that I started this blog. For regular readers none of this will come as a surprise. I’ve previously described how the media has misrepresented everything from social networking and love to vaccination, drugs, and cognitive enhancement. I must admit that I find this issue so distressing that I have been left with the unfortunate tenancy to generally rant on the topic uncontrollably.

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O’Connor, C., Rees, G., & Joffe, H. (2012). Neuroscience in the Public Sphere Neuron, 74 (2), 220-226 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.04.004 (PDF)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephan-Schleim/1347446151 Stephan Schleim

    Interesting piece – I am looking forward to reading it. Just by chance I will be able to attend a talk given by the first author at the European Neuroscience and Society final conference in London today (http://neurosocitieseu.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/ensn-final-conference/).

    Yet, I think that your blaming the journalists/media is too easy:

    First, I know many examples of academics communicating wrong figures, for example, on the prevalence of cognitive enhancement at their universities (e.g. “50% of our students already take Ritalin when preparing their exams”; for some other examples, see Schleim, S., 2010. Second thoughts on the prevalence of enhancement. BioSocieties 5: 484-485).

    Or think about the free will debate and the nonsense some colleagues say or write on the incompatibility of recent neuroscience findings with free will. Of course these are precisely the claims that journalists look for to reach a broad audience. Scientists have the possibility to react to a misrepresentation of their research – but few actually to so, maybe because they have benefited from the media hype generally.

    Second, it is a certain public for whom journalists write. In my opinion, many people prefer simple explanations over difficult, complex, and perhaps preliminary and incomplete accounts. Many cases in science are like the latter, not the former, in my experience. So it also depends on a broader public accepting more sophisticated reports in order to see better articles in the press and on the web.

  • http://twitter.com/Dirk57 Dirk Hanson

    Granted, neuroscience gets overhyped, but what I see are lurid and innapropriate headlines, rather than a specific ideological agenda at work.

  • http://de.wetours.com Thailand Reisen

    Would be great if the mentioned media outlets would publish this 😉 But in all seriousness, what they did here is great work, because every time you read a story of that kind, you can now point to that Nature paper and say: “That’s one of those”, and it helps to let people take these findings with a grain of salt.

  • Alan Rew

    When I click on your graphic, all I get is “Error. Click for details.” . Any chance of fixing this? (Firefox 12 BTW)

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