Action Potential

Science for the masses

Everyone is fascinated by science. When discoveries advancing our knowledge of the brain are made, these get extra attention. Why? Because we want to understand how we think, feel and function. When scientists discuss their research with the general public, people usually believe them, not dwelling on the details, but instead focusing on what implications a particular study might have on their own thoughts or opinions. This makes sense, because the general public is not in a position to evaluate the technical merits of most neuroscience manuscripts. That is why we have the peer review system and academic journals, like Nature Neuroscience. Once the study is reviewed favorably and is published, the general public can then be told of the exciting new progress.

Watson’s recent scandal proved the danger of working outside this system; by making statements regarding race and inherent intelligence, the Nobel laureate was abusing the respect given to him as a preeminent thinker on genetic issues by the general public. Nobody expects the carpenter in Arkansas to call Dr. Watson on his bluff, challenging him to cite the non-existent studies backing up those outrageous statements. Instead, the non-scientist takes the scientist at his word, and walks away believing that researchers had proven the inferiority of intelligence in those of African descent, wondering why s/he wasn’t told this sooner.

Well, this was an isolated incident, right? Dr. Watson is known to be controversial, he doesn’t like to hide his opinions, blah blah blah, and all those other silly excuses people make for him. An exception to the rule. Well, on Sunday, the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece stating that scientists can reveal the true feelings and impressions of swing voters simply by examining brain imaging data. Besides falsely claiming that a simple relationship exists between the site of brain activity and “state of mind / emotion”, the piece also contained many subtle (and not so subtle) political opinions designed to sway the opinions of the reader. Well, it was an Op-Ed piece, so they are allowed to do that, but masking those opinions in “hard science” is not only wrong but extremely irresponsible. Luckily, a swift reply was concocted by several experts in fMRI technology in an effort to set the record straight. As the letter points out:

This is so because brain regions are typically engaged by many mental states, and thus a one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.

But does anyone believe that the letter will be as widely read or discussed as the original piece? These researchers were basically publishing non-peer-reviewed data. Even worse, there is also an obvious conflict-of-interest, with the authors linked to a company, FKF Applied Research, which specializes in “NeuroMarketing.” This, from the company website, describes what they sell:

Academic research, as well as the proprietary work we have done for Fortune 500 companies, shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not always what they actually think, feel and act upon. fMRI scans, using our specially developed analytical methods, allow us to see beyond subjects’ self-report and to understand the deeper emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.

Therefore, the piece was also a blatant advertisement promoting the use of fMRI data to help sell, for example, soft drinks. If these researchers can determine the secret opinions that men have about Hilary Clinton, then certainly these researchers can figure out why those same men prefer Coke to Pepsi!! Shame on the New York Times for allowing the authors that amount of latitude. Although it was an opinion piece, it is hard to imagine the editors not recognizing this poorly-veiled attempt to bypass not only the typical academic process, but also the NY Times advertising department (can you blame the authors? Ad rates are pretty expensive these days).

But hey, I’m sure it was a cool piece to run! Good for business right? Who cares if it misleads the public about what we know about neuroscience. The record can be corrected later, with a short letter that won’t change anything buried somewhere on the website! No problem! Oh, and by the way, this is not the first time that the Times and these authors have teamed up to present the miracles of using fMRI in politics.

If we really want the general public to understand science and scientific process, researchers, and especially the media, need to do a better job of properly informing, not over-hyping results or hawking unproven marketing strategies supposedly founded on hard science. An angry public is one that is not being accurately informed. An angry public is one that will not support broader increases in research funding. Stagnate or reduced research funding means less progress. Hopefully the Times will learn from this and realize the importance of these issues and accept the massive responsibility that comes with bringing science to the masses.


  1. Report this comment

    Louis Nguyen said:

    It’s an interesting issue that you bring up. It makes me wonder about the line between informed hypotheses used in grants versus BS lofty ideas that are used to grab the attention of the public. The general public have always been seen by us neuroscientists as the laypeople because they do not understand the fine details of our work, or the specifics of what we have discovered. When they use ill-logic based on our ideas/theories/work, we have a responsibility to correct what has been mistaken as truth.

    Quality control of what is said in the media is important to keep the knowledge that laypeople attain valid and correct. But one could argue that freedom of speech would be violated by such quality control. But we have already done such quality control on one of our own (i.e. Watson). But are we allowed to challenge to validity of the media?

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    Drugmonkey said:

    are we allowed to challenge to validity of the media?

    you mean the accuracy and fundamental correctness? Ask yourself this- Would it be a matter of “free speech” if the sports page said “The Yanks won the World Series!” when in fact they did not? Why IS it the case that the most accurate part of the newspaper is the sports section anyway?

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    DSK Samways said:

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about the sale of “science” in the media. It would be an understatement to say that I was disturbed by Larry Page’s suggestion that grants be tied to the media impact of research. The very idea sends shivers down the spine.

    Scientific research is now operating at a level that is unfortunately, but inevitably, too advanced for the simple cause/effect relationships that make good pop science articles. Media outlets are driven by readership, not scientific integrity, and so will naturally look for headline grabbing material regardless of whether it is good science or otherwise. Worse, when it suits them, some scientists appear inclined to let their work be trumped up above its real relevance simply for the exposure.

    On the plus side the increasing presence of science on the internet, whether in the form of public access journals or blogs such as this one, at least provides some measure of balance to the issue.

    In this regard, I don’t think it would be entirely unhelpful to publish a website that essentially serves as the scientific equivalent of

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    Action Potential said:

    “All the News That’s Fit to Print” (except the part about potential conflicts of interest)

    Since the recent fall-out of the recent NY Times OP-Ed piece discussing the use of fMRI to predict the inclinations and feelings of swing voters is still fresh in our minds, I wanted to simply provide the link to a…