How can we, as scientists, do better to inform the public of what we’re actually doing?
“IMMORTALITY POSSIBLE? World’s’s first human head transplant successfully carried out,” reads the headline of one of the top search results for “head transplant” (2).
This headline is a particularly egregious example of how research in neuroscience and psychology often leads the general public to extrapolate wildly about the nature and possibilities of humanity. It is absolutely necessary that we, as a cohesive scientific community, ensure the public understands what we are and are not doing – what is and is not currently possible.
Most people only read about 20% of the contents of an online article (1). While the goal of an online journal is to get the most clicks on their articles, we need to ensure that the scientific findings and interpretations being transmitted are accurate and not debased. Here are a few excellent ways for scientists to convey their findings and debunk myths about their research to the general public.
Get involved in public outreach campaigns. In order to control the message being delivered, researchers can be the ones who start conversations. When we initiate public discussions about our research topics, we can manage misconceptions directly with the people we are communicating with.
Review the university press release. Although we cannot directly control how media outlets publish our studies, we can ensure the source-of-truth of any scientific reporting is accurate. Additionally, we often have more power within our own universities to correct errors or misleading phrasing than with general consumer publications.
Create and publish guides for readers. We can write up FAQs about our research that are easily understandable, and publish them in public domains, like researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did with their important study investigating mortality after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico (3). Filtering out jargon helps the general public gain an intuition for what the findings mean, and how they can or cannot be interpreted.
We, as scientists, are in extremely powerful positions as experts in our domains. Consequently, we must also uphold our duty to ensure findings are properly reported, de-sensationalized, and understood by a broad audience.
References Austin, J. (2017). IMMORTALITY POSSIBLE? Worlds first human head transplant successfully carried out. Express. https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/880926/Human-head-transplant- world-s-first-successful-corpse-Sergio-Canavero [Accessed 17 October 2018] Weinreich H, Obendorf H, Herder H, and Mayer M (2018) Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use , ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1, article #5 [Accessed 13 October 2018] Kiang, M (2018) Hurricane Maria Mortality Study FAQ, on Github https://github.com/c2- d2/pr_mort_official/blob/master/misc/faq.md [Accessed 15 October 2018]