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Neurobull
May 7, 2009 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Help, I'm a prisoner in brain fiction factory

Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks tears into popular reporting of neuroscience. Nice literacy primer. Random phrenological link.
posted by fcummins (24 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh HELL yes. This fills me with joy. My dopamine and oxytocin must be going crazy and shit!
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:50 AM on May 7, 2009


Cannabis users who believe the drug is safe might think again after brain-scanning studies at the Institute of Psychiatry in London showed how it damages cognitive function.

They might also be interested to know that it has implications in retarding the progress of Alzheimer's.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:54 AM on May 7, 2009


Seriously, are there no college courses in Science Journalism that people could take, just so writers could demonstrate either a) a single fucking iota of cluefulness about the science topic they write of, or b) an ability to functionally learn the shorthand version of what they're writing about, and convey it in a manner other than "Science Wizards invent new kind of light! Other Science Wizards fear it may END THE WORLD. Also, striiiiiiiing theory!"
posted by FatherDagon at 12:18 PM on May 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Science Wizards invent new kind of light! Other Science Wizards fear it may END THE WORLD. Also, striiiiiiiing theory!"

Which is odd cause Wizard Journalism is so dry and technical.
posted by The Whelk at 12:26 PM on May 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


Seriously, are there no college courses in Science Journalism that people could take, just so writers could demonstrate either a) a single fucking iota of cluefulness about the science topic they write of, or b) an ability to functionally learn the shorthand version of what they're writing about, and convey it in a manner other than "Science Wizards invent new kind of light! Other Science Wizards fear it may END THE WORLD. Also, striiiiiiiing theory!"

Of course there are. All J-schools offer science and medical writing courses and many undergrad programs offer classes like 'Technical Writing' or 'Scientific Reporting', which help establish the essentials.

With regard to mainstream media, several problems may not be immediately apparent to the casual observer. For example, unless a medical journalist is reporting to an editor in a science/medical department, their writing will be overseen by a general editor. At many newspapers and magazines, this means that their articles are likely to be adapted to fit a style -- i.e. given a snazzy headline, or framed to make content "more interesting" to the publication's average reader. In addition, many medical journalists began their careers at medical school intending to be physicians, but instead dropped out (not necessarily for academic reasons,) and shifted to writing careers. Since their higher educations are incomplete they are perhaps insufficiently broad enough to allow them to be knowledgeable generalists. Also, unreasonably tight deadlines tend to propagate errors in reporting.

However, the error posted at that Mind Hacks link is simply shoddy reporting, ignored by a fact-checker who was either asleep at the wheel or downsized out of a job.
posted by zarq at 12:36 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


However, the error posted at that Mind Hacks link is simply shoddy reporting, ignored by a fact-checker who was either asleep at the wheel or downsized out of a job.

Which error? The Mind Hacks link discusses at least three, and the original article is chock full of em'. It's not just shoddy reporting, it's massive misinterpretation of dozens of complicated findings, boiled down to essentially meaningless factoids and wild speculation.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:44 PM on May 7, 2009


Which error? The Mind Hacks link discusses at least three, and the original article is chock full of em'. It's not just shoddy reporting, it's massive misinterpretation of dozens of complicated findings, boiled down to essentially meaningless factoids and wild speculation.

Not to mention that similar claims are made in other science-journalism articles all the time.
posted by nasreddin at 12:48 PM on May 7, 2009


Newspapers-- particularly British newspapers-- don't usually have factcheckers. Factcheckers for the most part even at magazines have gone the way of the telegraph.

The NY'er still has 'em. Mother Jones still has 'em. Some sections of the NYT use them.

And I certainly won't defend crappy science writing but if people don't come up with a way to pay people for original reporting, you are only going to see more of it.
posted by Maias at 12:53 PM on May 7, 2009


You know, growing up we all wanted to live in the future with our flying cars and neurocomputer interfaces that would revolutionize society. I think we should thank science journalists for providing us the illusion that we exist in that future.

Actually, the future I wanted to live in involves mass paranoid fear that the scientists could read your mind, shuffle your brain around, and make you their willing servants. Thanks, science journalism!
posted by logicpunk at 12:56 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was referring to the error(s) at the first Mind Hacks link. I didn't read the original article until I had posted my comment. It's pretty awful, and yes, far more than shoddy reporting.
posted by zarq at 1:00 PM on May 7, 2009


And I certainly won't defend crappy science writing but if people don't come up with a way to pay people for original reporting, you are only going to see more of it.

What do you mean by original reporting? The scientists who conduct the research are doing the original reporting, right? Any interpretation of their results is necessarily second-hand. Even in instances where the folks doing the research are contacted directly and interviewed, it's still pretty easy to get it wrong (I'd bet dollars to donuts that Scott Huetell would hardly agree with the way his statements are being represented in the article in question).

I don't really know what the solution is, though fostering more explicit collaboration between journalists and scientists seems like it might be a step in the right direction. However, I don't know how many journalists want to let scientists proofread their articles, or how many scientists would be willing to do so.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:12 PM on May 7, 2009


Newspapers-- particularly British newspapers-- don't usually have factcheckers. Factcheckers for the most part even at magazines have gone the way of the telegraph.

I wasn't sure about UK papers. Thanks for explaining. :)

Some of the biggest US papers still employ them. Not many.

However, I'd say the majority of US magazines from the bigger publishers, (everyone from Vogue to PopSci,) still have researchers on staff who act as fact checkers. I deal with many of them professionally on a monthly basis. They confirm quotes and prices, as well as check that articles are factually accurate. Researchers at savvier publications will even try to make sure that a supposedly neutral expert being quoted isn't being compensated for voicing their opinions.

And I certainly won't defend crappy science writing but if people don't come up with a way to pay people for original reporting, you are only going to see more of it.

I'm a publicist, so you should be able to appreciate the irony of what I'm about to say: Money (or lack therof) has a great deal to do with the quality of the work they produce, but if journalists were encouraged (pushed) to look beyond what they're spoon fed by marketing departments and some of my own colleagues, we'd all be FAR better off.
posted by zarq at 1:18 PM on May 7, 2009


solipsophistocracy: "2Cannabis users who believe the drug is safe might think again after brain-scanning studies at the Institute of Psychiatry in London showed how it damages cognitive function.

They might also be interested to know that it has implications in retarding the progress of Alzheimer's.
"

Where did you get that quote?
posted by lostburner at 1:23 PM on May 7, 2009


It's from the first article linked in the Mind Hacks one. Sorry, should've linked it the first time.

My apologies if I'm all up in the mix too much, this is just an issue near and dear to my heart brain.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:30 PM on May 7, 2009


Our new, citizen-blogger based journalism will fix all this!
posted by Artw at 1:33 PM on May 7, 2009


I don't really know what the solution is, though fostering more explicit collaboration between journalists and scientists seems like it might be a step in the right direction.

That's already being done. Organizations exist to help create those links, like Newswise. They connect publicists/PIOs who represent (among others,) academic institutions / scientific organizations to journalists who can effectively (and hopefully knowledgeably,) interpret journal articles which detail the results of scientific studies. My own experiences working with editors through that service have been quite satisfying. They may approach new material with preconceptions, but they generally don't bias their articles.

However, I don't know how many journalists want to let scientists proofread their articles, or how many scientists would be willing to do so.

It's a recipe for disaster, on both sides. They write for different audiences, for one thing. Also, journalists must maintain objectivity, so allowing a scientist to suggest edits to an article would be considered inappropriate. However, quotes and descriptions can and should always be fact-checked. A journalist can (and should) do so without relinquishing one's role as a neutral reporter.
posted by zarq at 1:34 PM on May 7, 2009


What do you mean by original reporting? The scientists who conduct the research are doing the original reporting, right?

No, original reporting in the journalistic sense means reading the study, contacting the scientists who did the study, contacting other scientists (ideally those who are either not linked to the original researcher and/or are known to be critical for a good reason) to comment and put in context and using your own knowledge of the field to put it together in a way that is readable and engaging.

I am a science journalist who covers neuroscience, in fact-- and this is what I try to do. But when you are not paid enough, contacting more than 2 people and getting the context and going beyond just explaining the study in lay language goes by the wayside, fast. You simply don't have time to do it and manage to pay your mortgage because you have to write too many stories to be able to afford to do any of them well.

And that's how you end up with coverage that is basically arranged by journal or medical center publicists, who give you the study and the main author and then all you do is find another expert to comment and write it up.

If you know the field, you can get away with this and do a decent job nonetheless because you know the context and you know who to call to get comments that will make it good. But if you don't know the field-- and this is very clearly often the case-- you get crappy coverage.

Virtually all of the scientists I speak with first expect me to be an idiot who hasn't even read the paper itself and doesn't know what a synapse is. When they discover that not only have I read that paper, but a bunch of their other publications and a bunch of stuff by other labs in the same and connected areas, they suddenly change their tone and then I get the interesting stuff.
posted by Maias at 2:06 PM on May 7, 2009


Our new, citizen-blogger based journalism will fix all this!

Obviously blogs are not a perfect replacement for serious jounalism by any means, but blogging as a publishing method really does fundamentally fix exactly these kinds of problems. If actual experts like the scientists who actually conduct studies blog about them, the process can by Scientist -> Public instead of Scientist -> Peer-reviewed Paper -> Science Journalist -> Editor -> Public. The more direct route has its own problems, but it inherently doesn't suffer as much from the lost in translation problem.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:12 PM on May 7, 2009


I thank you for fighting the good fight, Maias, in face of the hardships and challenges. Obviously there are people who DO know what they're talking about, it just seems like an increasing rarity in the general media.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:32 PM on May 7, 2009


If actual experts like the scientists who actually conduct studies blog about them, the process can by Scientist -> Public instead of Scientist -> Peer-reviewed Paper -> Science Journalist -> Editor -> Public. The more direct route has its own problems, but it inherently doesn't suffer as much from the lost in translation problem.

This is unfortunately, not a solution. The public loses transparency which is vital to understanding whether a study's results have been biased. The purpose of peer review and objective journalism is to discern and explain whether results being given are being described accurately by researchers. Who sponsored the study? Are there corporate interests involved? Are the researchers being compensated by anyone with a vested interest in the results? Did the researchers drop subjects from the study if they failed to reach expected goals? Is the study's sampling statistically significant? Were protocols appropriately handled? There have been many, many cases where the latter two questions especially were a resounding "NO", and this was only determined during the peer review process.

Without knowing all of this, translation problems are the least of our worries.
posted by zarq at 2:41 PM on May 7, 2009


The public loses transparency which is vital to understanding whether a study's results have been biased. The purpose of peer review and objective journalism is to discern and explain whether results being given are being described accurately by researchers.

I agree that evaluating the veracity of claims coming from researchers is important, but in some cases the self-appointed objective gatekeepers of information do more harm than good. On one extreme, a journalist might might pass off press release as objective fact without indicating that no other sources were used, and on the other end a journalist might misinterpret facts that any expert on the subject would have understood.

Objective aggregators of information are important, but if anything putting all of the information out there without any behind-the-scenes filters makes the process more transparent rather than less transparent. That's the point of projects like Rejecta Mathematica, which publishes papers that have been rejected by the peer review process. To me a system in which everyone has a voice, from insiders to critics to objective observers, tends to be more effective in finding the truth than letting the people who own the printing presses decide what the public gets to read.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:21 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Scientist -> Public instead of Scientist -> Peer-reviewed Paper -> Science Journalist -> Editor -> Public.

The main problem with this is that a lot of scientists are really, really shitty writers.

My dad was a science journalist for a long time, and while he is no longer a journalist, he still makes his living interpreting science for bureaucrats, politicians, corporate managers, and similar knuckleheads. Explaining science well happens to be one of his super-powers, but it's still no easy task; it takes a lot of thought and effort, and especially it takes a particular set of skills that most scientists don't have the time, inclination, or even the ability to develop. And that's not a wholly bad thing; the scientists can focus on being good scientists, and my dad can focus on making sure everyone else groks what they're doing.

Not to mention that without people like Pops, a lot of science would never get publicized or looked at by people in power -- if it's badly written, no one is going to give it a second glance, including peer reviewers. Sometimes important work needs an interpreter because the researcher is not a native speaker of English, doesn't have a lot of time to spend on writing, or is simply a poor writer and not interested in improving (for whatever reason).

So, yeah, it's kind of a nice idea, but ultimately every public-scientific discussion would be dominated by those scientists who have the time and ability to write up their findings clearly, whether those findings are worth anything or not.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:35 PM on May 7, 2009


Upon closer inspection of the previous comments:

The public loses transparency which is vital to understanding whether a study's results have been biased.

Exactly. Imagine if the only source of information about the goings-on within the government came directly from the government. That wouldn't be much fun, would it?
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:42 PM on May 7, 2009


Metafilter: striiiiiiiing theory!
posted by JHarris at 8:06 PM on May 7, 2009


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