Tweeting the brain

Much is made at neuroethics conferences and in scientific journals of the broad societal implications lurking in the discoveries of neuroscience — implications for our understanding of those eternal big questions of autonomy, responsibility, identity, and just about any other topic of passionate dinner conversation.

As a few moments pause reveals, though, none of the big answers neuroethicists come up with will have those broad implications we hear about if they don’t make it to the eyes and ears of the people they’re supposed to affect — the public. And therein lies one of the less talked about issues in neuroethics: How does one communicate the neuroscientific view of the soul or of free will to a public unschooled to the ways of the BOLD response or the action potential?

In January’s issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15 science journalists, media specialists and neuroethicists — including Core director Judy Illes and intern Kevin Sauvé — lay out a proposal to improve the communication of neuroscience research by cultivating a band of media-savvy scientists to engage the public in “neurotalk.”

The authors cite some well-known faux pas in the communication of neuroscience, including an oft-maligned New York Times piece published during the 2007 U.S. primary election season. The story reported that voters associated Mitt Romney with anxiety and John Edwards with disgust because subjects in fMRI showed activation in their amygdala and insula, respectively, in response to photographs of the candidates. The piece also ironically concluded that “John McCain and Barack Obama have work to do” because photos of the two presidential-candidates-to-be elicited a weak response from subjects. Illes et al. borrow a term from the psychologist Deena Skolnick Weisberg to warn against the “seductive allure of neuroscience explanations,” adding that those explanations are often more hype than help and proffer an “unwarranted sense of objectivity” to readers.

But not all is lost! The way forward, the authors argue, is a three-step plan to improve communication of neuroscience research in quantity and quality:

  • “Promote a cultural shift”

Unfortunately, neuroscientists aren’t encouraged to invite the public into the goings-on of their research, and can even be actively discouraged from doing so by their colleagues, who may wonder why anyone would waste their time on the folk when they could be pursuing a grant or a scholarly publication. Scientists are also taught to be skeptical of journalists for (sometimes justified) fear of distortion of their work, which often prevents the public communication of their research from getting off the ground. The solution is two-pronged: a) Place greater value on communication of research by scientists, in the form of increasing the professional value of public lectures and handing out more awards for science communication, to name a few examples, and b) Communicate the process of neuroscientific research before the findings, to foster a better understanding of the caution scientists take in their work and the gradual pace of scientific advance.

  • “Support neuroscience communication specialists”

If communication of neuroscience research is going to happen, real people need to do it, so greater effort must be put into identifying and training effective communicators who will get the science right, whether they are media-savvy neuroscientists or professional journalists with a strong understanding of the research. The authors propose integrating media workshops into doctoral training and collaborating with university press offices to train a fleet of “knowledge brokers” who can convey new and exciting research to general audiences. These communicators would also receive a first-rate education in emerging emerged social media such as Twitter and Facebook, which have begun to be embraced by the neuroethics community.

  • “Enable research on neuroscience communication”

Perhaps the greatest insight of the paper is the call to mobilize the methods of the social sciences to determine just how much neurotalk is possible, and how best to do it. This goes both ways: We need a better understanding not just of the receptivity of the public to neuroscience communication, but also of the willingness of neuroscientists themselves to explore the ethical and social implications of their research with a broad audience. Illes et al. suggest that we look at successful instances of neuroscience communication as a guide to future projects, instead of just focusing on what not to do. They also rightly note that the standard audience profiles for more traditional media such as print, radio and television do not necessarily apply to the Internet, that final frontier of fourth-estate format. For that reason, there must be further development of a science of communication of science.

In all, the paper is a good, relatively easy read that is certainly worth a look for anyone with even a passing interest in neuroscience or journalism (which, one would hope, names every reader of this blog).

But I might have made one additional point to sprinkle a bit more optimism into the review, which is that there is a silver lining to a public that eats up “sensational media headlines that evoke mind reading, a neurogenetic basis for fidelity or voting patterns, memory boosters for the healthy, and miracle cures for sensory and movement disorders” — at the very least, it means they’re interested. We obviously have our work cut out for us to turn bad, sensationalist science communication into good, accurate science communication, but the positive spin is that the public appears hungry to learn more about the most mysterious three pounds of matter in the universe. And that bodes well for neurotalk.


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  1. Pingback: Communicating Neuroscience to the World « Stanford Neuroblog

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