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3Dec 2012

Winter of Discontent: Is the hot affair between neuroscience and science journalism cooling down?

Brain map/Wikipedia

Last month, the satiric science website, Collectively Unconscious, published a report from the fictional University of Ingberg about a "brain region that does absolutely nothing." According to the write up, neuroscientists were so outraged by this evidence of uselessness that one offered to surgically remove the structure from any patient wanting to get rid of a "cortical spare tyre."

Underneath the jokiness - this is, after all, a website that also quotes interviews with frozen woolly mammoths-  runs the same serious point being raised with increasing frequency by science writers and scientists alike, concerns about an area of research over-hyped by both professions, with the result of actually diminishing public understanding of its most meaningful findings.  Or as New York University psychology professor Gary Marcus wrote this week in a thorough and thoughtful New Yorker post titled Neuroscience Fiction: "the best neuroscientists today may be among those who get the fewest headlines."

Marcus does not dismiss the importance of what neuroscience research has genuinely illuminated about the way our brains work. But he argues that pop-science versions of the research has overemphasized and oversimplified some work - notably brain scans with their flashy visuals - at the expense of more complex and more substantive studies.  Here is one of my favorite sections from his Sunday piece:

"What gets play in the daily newspaper is usually a study that shows some modest correlation between a sexy aspect of human behavior, with headlines like “FEMALE BRAIN MAPPED IN 3D DURING ORGASM” and “THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON POKER”
But a lot of those reports are based on a false premise: that neural tissue that lights up most in the brain is the only tissue involved in some cognitive function. The brain, though, rarely works that way. Most of the interesting things that the brain does involve many different pieces of tissue working together..."

 The Marcus piece caught my attention in part because it followed so closely an even more blistering analysis by author Alissa Quart in The New York Times in late November. Quart's piece focuses on the rising chorus of criticism; to quote a particularly pithy passage: "As a journalist and cultural critic, I applaud the backlash against what is sometimes called brain porn, which raises important questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything."

Her essay, as you can see from this quote, is in many ways a first class rant. In her exasperation, she sweeps together a host of big name neuroscience writers, from Malcolm Gladwell to Naomi Wolf. To be fair, this is a rather apples and oranges comparison.  Whether you admire Gladwell's popsci-version of neuroscience or not, it's a territory he's covered consistently. Whereas Wolf basically parachuted into the neuroscience field this fall with her book, Vagina,  without apparently bothering to look at what was under her feet. Whereupon she was neatly eviscerated by some of the best neuroscience writers in the country, such as David Dobbs in this often hilarious blog post for Wired.

More puzzling in the Times' essay was the brief mention of another pop-neuro writer, Jonah Lehrer, without acknowledging that Lehrer  (who resigned from the New Yorker earlier this year in the midst of a scandal involving plagriarism and fictionalized quotes) isn't really representative of problems in the field. He only represents a science writer with serious problems of his own, as noted here at the Tracker by Paul Raeburn.

When I saw this recent flurry of neuro-critical stories I did wonder for a moment if this was part of the continuing Lehrer fall out, more of the backlash against his commercially successful method of weaving together brain research with self-help messages. But this really overstates Lehrer's influence. A sharply critical study of neuroscience coverage appeared in the journal Neuron (paywall) this spring, in fact. As Marcus notes, the history runs even deeper - last year saw publication of the book, Neuromania, for instance, with its critical look at our obsession with brain imaging.

And both Quart and Marcus cite the work - and influence - of such outstanding neuroscience blogs as Vaughan Bell's terrific Mind Hacks, Neuroskeptic, Neurobonkers, and Neurocritic. In fact, Neurocritic responded to the Marcus piece Monday with a well-balanced analysis of the recent wave of criticism: "Will it strengthen the field of neuroscience? Or is it hurting its image in the eyes of the public? Or both?"

To which I would only add that we should apply those same questions to the profession of science journalism. Let us hope that this bout of self-analysis leads to strengthening of our own work as well. Not to mention our reputation.

                                                                                                                                                                                      -- Deborah Blum






oooh, and the other thing I really like about those brain scan items we do is they always refer to the brain region that lit up as "known to be involved processing information" or something.

Well, so many of us have written stories along those lines, Rosie. And agreed, the glow is off. But part of the issue - and Marcus says this too - is that neuroscientists themselves (not all, but some) have spun it this way. So now - ideally - we all step back a little. I feel like I'm doing that across a number of fronts, actually. Sign of the times.

he argues that pop-science versions of the research has overemphasized and oversimplified some work 

I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you! I never would have expected such a thing from the media! And I never ever would have expected yet another piece that exposes this travesty!


Yep yep, and I cringe because I just wrote one of those "when X was doing Y, a brain region called the paranthetical reticular rosticulum lit up" blog posts.. and I sighed.. it's like the excitement we used to have whenever anyone cloned a gene.

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