Is sensationalization of scientific findings unethical?

Gary Marcus recently published in The New Yorker entitled “Neuroscience Fiction”.  It presents neuroscience as a science littered with inconsistencies and inaccurate data, referring mainly to PET and fMRI brain imaging studies.  As a neuroscientist I take an exception to this.  I am also surprised that Gary Marcus, an author of several scientific papers and a professor of psychology at NYU, does not have a better grasp on how to critically review scientific papers.  The established peer review process is good, but it simply ensures sound scientific technique and interpretation of the data, not independent reproduction of the findings.  Within any of the vast number of scientific disciplines it is easy to find papers that seemingly contradict each other.  This is not something that is neuroscience specific and if you carefully read the papers, including the methods section (gasp), you can often determine the source of their inconsistencies.  When dealing with emotional responses to an image (regularly done in fMRI studies) you can get vastly different responses from two different subjects in the same study where every methodological detail is identical.  For example, one person may see a dog as a soft adorable cuddly animal while another person that was recently bit by a dog could experience intense fear.  Now, if someone else does a seemingly similar study, but uses different images or in a different order or with different thresholds and parameters, it is not surprising that these two studies could yield very different results.  That isn’t to say that something cannot be learned from comparing the studies and outcomes. 

The problem isn’t with neuroscience or science in general.  Scientists must publish and present their results so they can be scrutinized by other scientists, reproduced in an independent lab, and alternate explanations, interpretations, and theories (or further support) can be established.  Problems arise when the findings are sensationalized through irresponsible reporting and the scientist is either not able to or simply does not accurately portray their research to the general public.  Scientists need to learn to be cautious when disseminating their findings to the general public.  They should be careful to emphasize that their new, cutting edge discovery has the potential to do this or lead to that, but that it doesn’t actually accomplish it yet. There is a breakdown in communication between scientist, reporters and the general public and I see it every day on CNN, The New Yorker, and many other popular new sources. 

Tell us what you think…Is this a problem?  What can be done about it?  Should sensationalized findings be considered scientific/ethical misconduct?

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About Erin Hascup

Erin graduated with her B.S. in Biochemistry from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2001 and went on to conduct research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Erin returned to school and obtained a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology from the University of Kentucky in 2007. She completed postdocs at the Karolinska Institute and McGill University. Erin currently works at Southern Illinois School of Medicine and is co-founder of Follow Erin on Twitter @RuthiePhD.
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3 Responses to Is sensationalization of scientific findings unethical?

  1. Liya Shen says:

    The color of the words used to describe a scene or event, ranging from extreme negativity to extreme positivity, can elicit all kinds of emotions depending on1) the tonality of the words chosen by people in different segment of the society and 2) by the sensitivity of people to the words. Jounalism is required to write in words that are suitable to general public, i.e., to choose words used by people at grade level 6-8 or so, if I am not mistaken. The so-called “lost in translation” is a phrase not just applicable to language barrier for translation between foreign languages, now it is also applicable to describe miscommunications among people from diverse specialized field and to people in general public. How to integrate of diverse disciplines is to work together to break the barrier of jargon used by mathmatical, energineering, scientific, and legal professionals, etc. just to name a few, and how to communicate to the public of latest findings in news is to put all discovery into context, so people will understand how new knowledge is accumulated over a very slow, long and tedious process.

    All discovery is double edged sword. It is not under the cntrol of scientist how to ensure their discovery is being used in the intended direction unless they are involved in the process of developing the products themselves in the right way, prior to publication. This will violate the principle of scientific publication, to disseminate the knowledge in journals asap and for the scientist to take the credit as discoverer and pioneer in the field.

  2. David Ballou says:

    I say amen to both Erin’s and Krishna’s comments.

  3. Journalists usually do things that enhance the sale of their journals, magazines and newspapers. Unless they sensationalize something, people don’t take notice of their work. The culture of sensationalization is what is driving the media and making it thrive. I don’t think it is very serious about promoting science. Science communication should be taken up by scientists themselves to stop this rot. I am glad scientists are coming forward now to do this. I too wrote on this subject. You can read two of my articles here:
    Yes, I can understand your concerns.

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