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How Neuroscience Appears in the Mainstream Press: some empirical support for my prejudices

A paper published this month in the journal Neuron by O’Connor, Rees and Joffe (2012): Neuroscience in the Public Sphere is a fascinating content analysis of how neuroscience has been presented between 2000 and 2010 in six mainstream UK newspapers: the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, and Guardian.
On the basis of other research by Racine and colleagues (referenced in the article) they point out that there are three main stories in representation of neuroscience research:

Neurorealism describes the use of neuroimages to make phenomena seem objective, offering visual proof that a subjective experience (e.g., love, pain, addiction) is a “real thing.” Neuroessentialism denotes depictions of the brain as the essence of a person, with the brain a synonym for concepts like person, self, or soul. Finally, neuropolicy captures the recruitment of neuroscience to support political or policy agendas.

I have complained in previous posts about the logical flaw in neurorealism, and I guess the habit of illustrating articles with a generic fMRI image of the brain (which I also hate) is an example of neuroessentialism.
O’Connor et al’s paper goes further than this, however, with fascinating detail of trends and content:

The data revealed that the number of articles published per year climbed steadily for most of the decade (Figure 1) [in original], despite drops in 2007 and 2009. Table 1 [in original] displays the percentage of articles that discussed different subjects. The most frequent category of subjects to which the media referred was brain optimization: 43% of all articles discussed enhancement of or threats to brain function. Thirty-six percent of articles referred to psychopathology, 24% to basic functions, and 14% to applied contexts. Fourteen percent discussed issues related to parenthood and 12% individual differences, while sexuality and morality both appeared in 11% of the sample.

They identified three main themes: brain as capital, brain as index of difference – so explaining differences between people in terms of differences in brain function – and thirdly, and what I’ll focus on here, brain research as proof of particular phenomena or beliefs.

The final theme captures the deployment of neuroscience to demonstrate the material, neurobiological basis of particular beliefs or phenomena. This was presented as evidence of their validity and was sometimes used for rhetorical effect. This theme traversed most of the code categories but was particularly salient within applied contexts, basic functions, sexuality, and spiritual experiences.

Two sub-themes here. First, neuroscience research tells us what is ‘natural’, and what is natural must be right… ” In social discourse, what is “natural” is often equated with what is just or right: implicit in the descriptive “is” statement is a normative “ought” statement.”  …the other is assuming that if you can show a neurological correlate of something, then that is a complete and sufficient explanation for it, even if the phenomenon is something which obviously also relates to social and historical factors:

For example, research on the analgesic effects of religious beliefs was used to explain how religious martyrs endure torture (Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2008); the tenacity of historical figures like Winston Churchill and Emmeline Pankhurst was attributed to their alleged possession of a gene linked to stubborn behavior (Daily Mail, January 3, 2008); and a study showing that informational overload can “crowd out” empathy was presented as evidence that social networking websites like Twitter “rob people of compassion” (Daily Mail, June 3, 2009). These were examples of overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and owner of a chain of private brain-scanning clinics, has suggested in the US press that all presidential candidates should have their grey matter probed. This, he suggests, would help to steer clear of a future Adolf Hitler (cursed with “faulty brain wiring”) or Slobodan Milosevic (who suffered “poor brain function”). (Times, January 7, 2008)

The authors point out that this is a powerful rhetorical technique:

The media data provide a naturalistic analog to experimental findings that brain-based information confers a scientific aura that obscures an argument’s substantive content (Weisberg et al., 2008). The ability to simulate coherent “scientific” explanations through cursory reference to the brain meant that neuroscience was exploited for rhetorical effect. Due to the size and range of the media sample, it was impossible to directly compare media coverage with the corresponding neuroscience research to precisely establish the extent they diverged. However, it seemed clear that research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas.

… and understanding of this has implications for scientists:

Rather than a one-way flow of information in which scientists passively impart “the facts” in a press release, the public engagement process thus becomes a dialogue in which scientists interact with, influence, and are influenced by society. Awareness of the public impact of neuroscientific information should also be encouraged within the policy sphere. Incorporation of neuroscientific evidence into policy debate should be closely monitored to ensure that the contribution is substantive rather than purely rhetorical and that neuroscientific evidence is not used as a vehicle for espousing particular values, ideologies, or social divisions.

I’ve quoted extensively from this article, because what it says is worth repeating. It seems clear and evenhanded, and is short and quite readable. It covers more topics than the one I’ve picked out, as well. Follow the link above and you can read it for yourself.

I found this article by following a post on the Neurobonkers blog: “New paper slams UK media for routinely misrepresenting neuroscience research to further ideological agendas”
Nneurobonkers looks as though it’s an interesting and entertaining blog, and I think I’ll try following it. “New paper slams UK media for routinely moisrepresenting” is a bit strong, perhaps. I’m tempted to believe that the Daily Mail might routinely misrepresent things to further ideological agendas, but that’s my prejudice. When my ‘Psychology and the Media’ option students studied psychology reporting in the popular press a couple of years ago we actually came to the conclusion that Daily Mail articles on psychology were comparatively quite accurate and informative, though the headlines for those articles did often seem to misrepresent the research. Can’t believe that The Guardian would misrepresent anything, though – but they do use that stupid brain picture a lot.

Update: Just noticed a useful blog post by, which gives information on the Racine & al research mentioned above, and other similar stuff, and a devastating example of how neuro information is misunderstood and misused (and misrepresented, it seems), in Cordelia Fine’s criticism of an assertion in Louann Brizendine’s bestseller The Female Brain that women are more empathic than men because they have more mirror neurones than men. Brainblogger’s post is worth reading if you thought the stuff above was interesting.

Full article reference:
O’Connor, Cliodhna,  Rees, Geraint & Joffe, Helene (2012) Neuroscience in the Public Sphere, Neuron 74, (2), 220-226

Refs mentioned above from the article:
Racine et al., 2005 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2005). Nat. Rev. Neurosci6, 159–164. PubMed

Racine et al., 2006 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2006). Sci. Commun. 28, 122–142. PubMed

Racine et al., 2010 Racine, E., Waldman, S., Rosenberg, J., and Illes, J. (2010). Soc. Sci. Med71, 725–733. CrossRef | PubMed

Rubinstein et al., 2001 Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., and Evans, J.E. (2001). J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 27, 763–797. CrossRef | PubMed

Final note: I’ve copied and pasted these references from the original journal articles, so they’re obviously in correct form for the journal. That form leaves out the title of the paper: seems particularly unhelpful, but I’m too lazy follow them through and find the titles for you. You can get an idea of the topics from the way they’re cited in the paper and the quotes above.


One response to “How Neuroscience Appears in the Mainstream Press: some empirical support for my prejudices

  1. millerpsych April 9, 2013 at 9:10 am

    A nice example of how a study gets turned into stupid headlines: also mentions the ‘brain image in article increases credibility’ study.
    Thanks, Christina, for the reference.

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