Communicating neuroethics in the age of Twitter

As Brain Awareness Week comes to a close, we begin our first meeting to investigate the challenges in the communication of ethics in neuroscience.

During our discussion it has become apparent that many of the difficulties in reporting brain science are not uncommon to the challenges that face science communication generally. Journalism is focused on what’s new and on people that can tell an interesting and entertaining story. Science craves context and what is new is often only understood within the framework of decades of research.

It is the ethics implied in the study of neuroscience that presents a unique challenge to the reporter, the brain being intimately associated with what makes us human. As knowledge of the brain increases so does the potential to manipulate it. Whether inventing a pill to wipe out memories or using brain scans to study marketing techniques, researching neuroscience comes with consequences.

“The goal of engaging the public is to empower people,” said Dr. Judy Illes, director of the National Core for Neuroethics. “Here [at the Banff Centre] we are really looking to shake things up in terms of how we are planning on doing that.”

It was last year during at the Canadian Research Consortium meeting that she met Jay Ingram, co-host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. Together they developed the idea for the Banff program. “We wanted to figure out, and actually execute, new ways of communicating neuroscience and ethics and do so as broadly as possible,” said Ingram during the opening reception. “We are asking the media people to think more broadly than usual and we want the same from scientists.”

For neuroscientists Sam Weis and Anthony Philips, preserving the accuracy and integrity of their work in the media is imperative. “This is a crucial time for science funding,” said Philips, “unless we can let people know of the value of our work then it is in jeopardy.”

Researching the molecular mechanisms of memory and learning has given Dr. Philips insight in the neurobiology of addiction. Understanding addiction as a brain disease, he says, has important implications for battling stigma and in treating this devastating social health issue

Dr. Weiss, a leading authority on neural stem cells – he discovered them in 1992 – wants the public to understand that stem cells are not a “magic bullet”. He worries that the media emphasis on entertainment and sensationalism often comes at the expense of accuracy.

“I have never had any concern what-so-ever about whether [my column] sells newspapers… I consider it my duty to inform the public,” said Peter McKnight, editor and columnist from the Vancouver Sun. A former lawyer and parole officer, he is interested with what neuroscience has to say about free will and the implications of brain imaging for criminal responsibility.

This is a tough time for print writers; newspapers are folding across the country, especially the science sections. The Internet however, is thriving with science speak, and is engaging audiences around the globe. This medium presents both opportunities and challenges for Christie Nicholson, freelance science writer and podcast contributor to Scientific American Online.

Although online media reaches audiences faster and provides for quick feedback, it is not easy to finance a career as a journalist using a platform that can be accessed for free.

Nicholson is a jack-of-all trades. She utilizes her writing skills for her freelance work as well as radio reporting skills for podcasting and even keeps a miniature video camera on her at all times.

She’s also been twittering, constantly, since our meeting started. “#neurotalk are working scientists considering the phil arg of mind/brain…morality&free will? Such that they can be questioned by reporters?” I pick up her Tweet at the same time that New York Times writer, Sandra Blakslee speaks these concerns. (Nicholson already has me convinced that I should do the same, and I just now opened a Twitter account.)

Science journalists today need to use all the web 2.0 tools they can get their cursors on in order to find their audience. In this case, Twitter seems to be doing the trick as she says an editor from Scientific American has already re-tweeted the messages from the meeting to thousands of other online readers.

Nicholson reports comments from her Twitter followers back to the group. “Hey, this guy asks ‘why hasn’t there been more media coverage of the recent Nature article calling for the use of cognitive enhancement drugs by the healthy?’”

Good question. Let’s see what we can do…

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