Category Archives: Science Communication and Journalism

Great science reads: Does “brain porn” fail the test?

“Brain porn” is a term given to the simplistic (and reductionist) thinking that leads to attempts to use neuroscience (especially brain-scanning technologies) to explain the way the human brain works. This recent suite of articles discusses neuroscience, neuroscientists and the complexity involved in describing the human brain.

1. Let’s kick things off with a swift kick to the idea that neuroscience can explain nearly everything, including voting for the Republicans (Quart’s example in this first article) and even playing poker (as Blum mentions in article 5 below).

Neuroscience: under attack by Alissa Quart at The New York Times

2. This piece runs through some of the issues around drawing too many conclusions from brain imaging. I will paste a quotation from this article below because it is relevant to article number three in this selection:

“Scientists are also still struggling to construct theories about how arrays of individual neurons relate complex behaviors, even in principle. Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.”

Neuroscience fiction by Gary Marcus at The New Yorker

3. This article picks up on the theme of a neuroscience equivalent for Newton.

Does Neuroscience need a Newton? by Scicurious at Scientific American blogs

4. If you want a great run-down of some neuroscience history along with the Newton-like nominees for neuroscience, read this piece.

Nominees for the Newton of neuroscience by Zen Faulkes at NeuroDojo

5. As you can tell from the title of this piece, we finish with a journalistic angle to the “brain porn” debate.

Winter of discontent: Is the hot affair between neuroscience and science journalism cooling down? by Deborah Blum at Knight Science Journalism at MIT

Sensationalised medical reporting: scientists are adding to the problem

MoJo Musings

Science and health reporting has copped a lot of flak over the years. The report of the “scientific breakthrough” has become frustrating and annoying (and perhaps an ethical issue), especially to people who are sick and desperate for a cure.

Certainly, if you believed everything you read in the newspaper in the 1990s, breast cancer should have been cured in 1998 and the sequencing of the human genome should have “transformed medicine”.

There are three main players in this particular media game:

  • Scientists
  • PR departments of research institutions
  • Journalists

A study just published by Yavchitz and colleagues in PLOS Medicine looked at the interactions of all three players. The results suggest that scientists should look carefully at their own writing of scientific papers, as this can have a role in disseminating “spin”. I think this finding would surprise many scientists.

The study examined a cohort of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that are considered the “gold standard” for testing the effectiveness of therapies. The authors examined “spin” in the conclusions of the scientific abstracts (the summary of the study) of the original published paper and in the corresponding press release and news story.

The authors defined spin as “specific reporting (intentional or unintentional) that emphasises the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment”.

To me, the results were startling.

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