Gary Marcus

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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