Responsibly reporting neuroscientific findings. “IMMORTALITY POSSIBLE? World's first human head transplant 'successfully' carried out,” reads the headline of the top google result for “head transplant” (2). Although this is a particularly egregious example of reporting gone awry, it is true that simply because neuroscience and psychology are inseparably linked, the public is keen to interpret findings and extrapolate wildly about the nature 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 possible. Most people only read about 20% of online articles (1). When the goal of a journalist is to get the most clicks, it is vital that the biggest nugget journalists can extract from our research is not a debased interpretation of what we’re really doing. Here are a few excellent ways I’ve seen scientists debunk myths around their research to general consumers. Get involved in public outreach campaigns. In order to be in control of the message, researchers can start the conversation. When we initiate public discussion around our research topics, we can manage expectations and misconceptions directly, face-to-face with the people we hope to impact most. As a bonus, we de-mystify the scientific process while we’re at it. Review the university press release. Although we’re not in control of how media outlets spin it, we can ensure the source-of-truth of any scientific reporting is accurate. 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. When we know our research could be mischaracterized, we can write up FAQs that are easily understandable, and post them in public places, like researchers from MIT with their important study investigating mortality after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico (3). Filtering out jargon helps casual consumers gain an intuition for what findings mean, and how they can and can or cannot be applied. We, as scientists, are in extremely powerful positions as gatekeepers to knowledge. Consequently, we also must uphold our duty to ensure findings are properly reported, de- sensationalized, and understood by broad audiences.

References

  1. Austin, J. (2017, November 17). IMMORTALITY POSSIBLE? World's first human head transplant 'successfully' carried out. Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/880926/Human-head-transplant-world-s- first-successful-corpse-Sergio-Canavero.
  2. Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: "Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use," in the ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 2008), article #5 [Accessed 13 October 2018]
  3. Kiang, M. https://github.com/c2-d2/pr_mort_official/blob/master/misc/faq.md