Sensationalized science pollutes public trust

By Emily Rogalski

Disagreement about the existence of climate change makes the cut as an issue that divides people in Heineken’s recently released World’s Apart commercial where strangers are paired together without knowing that they have opposing views. The “experiment” in this ad demonstrates how common ground can be achieved by talking to someone with a perspective that differs from their own. While conversations may be a good way to find common ground, an equally important question is: How do these differing opinions develop in the first place? Mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific studies are likely prominent contributors to our opposing views about medical science issues from vaccinations to the Affordable Care Act. Sensationalized scientific headlines may be at the root of the problem, propagating unrealistic expectations and confusion in healthcare and medical research.

As a clinical and cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, I have experienced this when my scientific work receives media attention. The headline will read “New test diagnoses dementia”, but the truth is that the test is useful for detecting a specific symptom. The study results provide meaningful information; however, the test does not diagnose dementia on its own, as the headline implies.

These teaser headlines foster mistrust, confusion, and fatigue in the public. We are bombarded with all-or-nothing headlines encouraging us to eat eggs to avoid disease “X” one day and followed by the opposite statement the next day. A recent Pew report suggests 22% of Americans trust the information they get from local news organizations “a lot”. The numbers drop to 4% for social media.

Why do these exaggerated scientific headlines persist?

Neuroscience offers some answers. Our neurons have a specific affinity for novelty. This feature serves an important purpose for survival. Our attraction to new things allows us to stop what we are doing and direct our attention to the new encounter so that we could determine its salience. Is it a friend or a foe? Should I flee or fight? In today’s world our brain’s affinity for the shiny bobble makes us easy prey for sensationalized news. Avoiding this fate can be especially challenging with biomedical content where the terminology is often complex and seemingly difficult to decipher unless you are a detective with sophisticated skills to decode fact from fiction.

Modern news is available in ways few could have predicted 20 years ago and it continues to accelerate as innovative delivery methods surface. This creates intense marketing competition for hijacking and sustaining the public’s attention. Incentivizing accuracy over speed in reporting is an important element, which could improve trust and knowledge among the audiences we are trying to reach.

It is easy to vilify the “media” as some sort of collective, but blaming someone else is not productive or accurate. As in most scenarios, the challenges are more complex. However, there are positive steps we can take to improve communication of scientific research.

Making science more approachable, while maintaining veracity, is one solution.

This can be achieved by inspiring scientific inquiry at an early age through STEM and STEAM initiatives. Engaging youth is not just up to teachers. Parents have an increasing number of options to introduce and encourage the development of young scientific minds — museums offer dynamic interactive displays; kids TV shows weave scientific into their narratives or make it the centerpiece of the show, there are even science-based birthday parties. It is unfortunate that many of these programs appear to be undervalued by the current administration.

Another solution is providing opportunities for scientists and journalists to interact, learn and communicate with each other are emerging and have great potential — The Public Voices Fellowship (disclosure: I’m a fellow, myself), Ready Set Go and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science provide three promising models for improving scientific communication.

All types of industries have recognized the importance of incorporating neuroscience into their strategic plans.

A recent report suggests there are now more scientists outside academia versus inside. Companies have created neuromarketing departments to find an edge to stay ahead of competitors. To be sure, this intermingling of science and for-profit industries could result in unscrupulous outcomes. However, if done with integrity, the image of science could benefit from this influx of scientists into nonacademic positions. Ideally, integration of scientists into careers outside of academia would offer an opportunity for mutual learning across industries and a chance change the misperception that science is too complex, nerdy, and inaccessible.

In medicine, sensationalized headlines can foster the belief that there are one-size-fits-all or magic bullet cures for whatever ails us. Perpetuating this notion as fact can paralyze innovation in healthcare because not all problems have an easy or all encompassing solution.

Good scientific research is usually incremental; most of the “ah-ha” moments are possible because of years of previous work. Proving something takes time, patience, thoughtfulness and often failures along the way.

To be sure, rapid dissemination of knowledge is important but accuracy should trump exaggeration.

Communication across disciplines and making science more approachable are two keys for improving the dissemination real rather than alternative facts.

Emily Rogalski is a clinical neuroscientist, Associate Professor at Northwestern Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, and a Public Voices Fellow. @ERogalskiPhD