Friday, March 15, 2013

How Neuroscientists Scan the Media

In case you missed it, I had a guest post this week in Nature's SpotOn NYC series on Communication and the Brain (#BeBraiNY), held in conjunction with Brain Awareness Week. The theme concerned the challenges of engaging the public's interest in cognitive sciences, and communicating the knowns (and unknowns) of brain disorders:
In the current funding climate of budget cuts and sequestration, there’s a wide latitude between overselling the immediate clinical implications of "imaging every spike from every neuron" in the worm C. elegans (as in the proposed Brain Activity Map Project) and ignoring science communication entirely, leaving it up to the university press office.

Who occupies the middle ground between the industry cheerleader and the disinterested academic? Science bloggers, for one. Scientist bloggers comprise a growing segment of the science communication world.

Many of us have been critical of how traditional media channels can distort the actual scientific results and mislead the public. With the mainstreaming of neurocriticism, I felt this topic had been discussed extensively in recent months, so I moved on to the responsibilities we face in presenting accurate information. Some examples were drawn from my posts on unusual neurological disorders, including Prosopometamorphopsia (a condition where faces look distorted on one side) and Othello Syndrome (delusional jealousy). Both posts can turn up on the first page of a Google search, so I do feel an obligation to be factual and informative.

Another example was a critique of public brain scanning on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Although I wrote that post (and a follow-up) in 2010, readers were finding them now because former program participants Mindy McCready and Dennis Rodman were in the news, for very different reasons.

My guest post concludes with:
Scientist bloggers serve an important function in the continuum of science communication. We should take our responsibility for presenting high quality, ethical information very seriously, to help stem the ongoing flood of neurocrackpottery.

Amidst the SpotOn NYC series extolling the virtues of science blogging came a new paper suggesting that science blogs are inferior sources of information relative to traditional media (Allgaier et al., in press):
Scientists may understand that neuroscience stories in legacy media channels are likely to be of higher quality than similar narratives found in blogs. Stories in social channels are often crafted on the fly, without the help of experienced editors who can point out holes in the narrative or who can insist on rewriting and revision. Blog posts also tend to be shorter narratives, bereft of the kind of complexity and nuance possible only in long-form journalism.

Obviously, there's a lot of high quality "long-form" journalism (which is never defined in the paper), but a huge number of high quality, complex and nuanced blog posts can be found as well. The passage above sparked quite the discussion on social media. Here's one initiated by respected journalist, blogger, and science writer Carl Zimmer:
Blogs versus journalism in neuroscience--IT LIVES!

I found passages like the one I just quoted [the one above] to be puzzling on many levels.

Science blogs pretty much came into existence as a way for scientists themselves to critique bad coverage in traditional media. And, ten years later, that remains a powerful tradition.

The paper presents a romantic, uncritical view of the press. Speaking as a journalist, I can say this is a view we can ill-afford.

What's more, neuroscience blog posts are very often deep, nuanced, and more accurate than "churnalism" driven by glib press releases.

If neuroscientists are indeed avoiding blogs for this reason (no data provided in the paper that this is true), then they are sadly misguided.

Eight others joined in the discussion, which is worth reading.  One of the participants was Dominique Brossard, an author on the article in question.

In brief, Allgaier et al. (in press) randomly contacted 1,248 "productive" neuroscientists who had published at least 8 articles in the preceding 2-year period. The survey participation rate was 21.3% in the US and 32.6% in Germany.
The scientists responded to questions about three dimensions of public media channels, both traditional and online: (1) their personal use of these channels to “follow news and information about scientific issues”; (2) their assessment of the impact of scientific information in these channels on public opinion about science; and (3) their assessment of the impact of such information on “science-related decisions made by policymakers.” The respondents answered the questions with respect to a comprehensive list of traditional print or broadcast media, online analogs of those media channels, blogs, and content in social networks.
Respondents were primarily male (78%) and over 40 (79%). Is this a typical sampling of neuroscientists? Obviously not, since it is gender-imbalanced1 and excludes most grad students and the average post-doc.

The results in this group of participants suggested a preference for old media:
The results of our survey indicate that the respondents in both countries remained heavily reliant on journalistic narratives, in both traditional and online forms, for information about scientific issues. Only a modest number of the surveyed neuroscientists reported that they use blogs or social networks to monitor such issues.

Fig. 1a (modified from Allgaier et al., in press). Media use (in percentages) among neuroscientists in the United States and Germany. For the exact wording of the questions, detailed data, and significance information, consult supplemental table S1, available online at  [not online as of this writing].

The over 40 crowd was more reliant on newspapers and valued online articles less than the younger set, who used social media more often as a source of popular science news. Women were less reliant on newspapers and printed pop sci magazines for science issue information than men.

Do we really know if the participants consider blogs and social media to be inferior sources of information for the reasons quoted above? We do not. The authors were speculating, as they were in this paragraph (which elicited howls in the Blogs versus journalism discussion): 
Finally, we speculate that the scientists in this study may value journalistic narratives because they appreciate that journalism is indifferent to the interests and goals of science. Although this may be perceived as a disadvantage of journalism from the scientists’ point of view, it is actually a key advantage. Their role as external observers affords journalists credibility compared with scientific self-presentation.

This attitude is quite different from the skeptical neuroblogger view of mainstream science journalism, which is covered in many of the posts below. It seems to me that Allgaier et al.'s sampling method potentially excluded many of these voices, who were not considered "productive" neuroscientists by the authors.

All posts in the #BeBraiNY series:


1 According to the Society for Neuroscience:
Women have been an increasing force within the field, more than doubling over the past 20 years – 21 percent of SfN members were women in 1982 compared to 43 percent in 2011, according to membership surveys.


Joachim Allgaier, Sharon Dunwoody, Dominique Brossard, Yin-Yueh Lo, & Hans Peter Peters (2013). Journalism and Social Media as Means of Observing the Contexts of Science. BioScience : 10.1525/bio.2013.63.4.8 {PDF}

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At March 15, 2013 9:05 AM, Anonymous J. Harbster said...

Hi Neurocritic. I am a librarian embarked on a project of preserving science blogs see and I would very much like Neurocritic to be part of the collection. In order to do so I need to email you a notice and permission statement for us to crawl and preserve. If you are interested please me at and we can talk more about it.

At March 15, 2013 9:59 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

J. Harbster - I sent you an e-mail with my contact info. Thanks for the invitation.

At March 17, 2013 3:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously, blogs are only as good as the person who writes them. Sorry to say, but most neuro-this and neuro-that blogs are no better than the average media outlets. They look like they are written by logorrheic people in need of attention and with too much time on their hands.
Neurocritic is a refreshing exception to this pattern!

At March 17, 2013 6:55 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous of March 17, 2013 - Thank you for the compliment! And thanks for reading.

At March 31, 2013 6:05 PM, Anonymous Brain Molecule Marketing said...

We are B2B marketers of technical subjects (finance) and pro communicators - or experience is simply that there is no way to avoid close to both open and peer-review of science journalism.

Whether it's journalists or bloggers, etc, opinions and conjecture about any science topic, without peer-reviewed data and facts carries little information value.

Our experience, and we try hard, is that pop science is an oxymoron. It seems to cause more problems and push back than anything positive.

It is a myth that a general reader either cares of can understand science. They (we) can't.

Think the rest of the world accepts this more than Yanks.

At May 06, 2014 6:57 AM, Anonymous Chiara said...

Hi Neurocritic,
I'd like to comment with you this papaer of the same author who has done a kind of updating about the relationship between scientists and media. Here the link of the paper

Looking forward for your comments

At May 06, 2014 4:44 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for the link, I haven't read that paper before. To me, it seems mostly entrenched in science departments that media outreach and public communication are a waste of time (or very low priority, at best). On the other hand, Public Relations offices at some institutions are overly eager to promote and overinterpret results for positive publicity. And many scientists assume that journalists will simplify and misrepresent, while journalists assume that scientists can't write. Until the incentives and rewards for such activities changes, things will stay the same.

As the abstract concludes:

"However, as yet, there is little evidence of an erosion of the dominant orientation toward the public and public communication within the younger generation of scientists."


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