Brain waves

Articles about neuroscience push ideology, inflame divisions, study says

From advice about “exercising your mind” to treatises on “the gay brain,” media coverage of neuroscience in the UK often pushes “thinly disguised ideological arguments” and reinforces artificial divisions between social groups, according to a new study.

A team of researchers at University College in London reviewed 2,931 articles published between 2000-2010 in the three best-selling British broadsheets and tabloids—the Daily Telegraph, Times, Guardian, Daily Mail, Sun, and Mirror—and found that the number of stories published per year has “climbed steadily for most of the decade.” Quality has not kept pace with quantity, however.

Time and again, reporters stretched scientific conclusions in order to support “dramatic headlines” about human health and behavior, according to the team’s paper, which was published April 26 in the journal Neuron:

The most frequent category of subjects to which the media referred was brain optimization: 43 percent of all articles discussed enhancement of or threats to brain function. Thirty-six percent of articles referred to psychopathology, 24 percent to basic functions, and 14 percent to applied contexts. Fourteen percent discussed issues related to parenthood and 12 percent individual differences, while sexuality and morality both appeared in 11 percent of the sample.

Three major themes emerged from the coverage, the researchers, led by Cliodhna O’Connor, a graduate student in the Division of Psychology & Language Sciences, concluded. The first was “the brain as capital” or “a resource to be optimized”:

For enhancement, the most common feature was recommendation of foods that purportedly improved neural function, and also mental activities (e.g., ‘‘brain-training’’ software), artificial methods (e.g., ‘‘smart pills’’), and physical activity. Media articles rarely conveyed that evidence for the efficacy of such measures was equivocal. Articles within the threat frame highlighted risks posed by drugs and alcohol, mobile phones, environmental toxins, and computers.

The second theme was “the brain as an index of difference”:

Articles devoted considerable space to demonstrating male-female neurobiological differences and also to evidence that substance abusers, criminals, homosexuals, obese people, and people with mental health conditions had distinctive brain types.

The third theme was “the brain as biological proof”:

The brain operated as a reference point on which the reality of contested or ephemeral phenomena was substantiated. For example, religious experiences, medically puzzling health conditions, and supernatural phenomena were reconstituted as manifestations of neural events.

The problem, the researchers argue, is that each of the three themes “demonstrate how established cultural concerns and values can be projected onto scientific knowledge.”

Brain optimization, for instance, was “interlinked” with discussion of child rearing:

Pronouncements on parenting practice acquired scientific authority through claims that these practices had specific effects on children’s brains. This veneer of science, however, sometimes concealed clear value judgments about what constitutes ‘‘good’’ parenting.

An article in the Daily Telegraph, which the paper cited, attempted to present scientific proof that lack of attention from working mothers “has a devastating effect on children.” Without being specific, the piece reported that, “Researchers viewing CAT scans of the key emotional areas of a neglected child’s brain have described looking into a black hole.”

The biases in coverage of “the brain as index of difference” were even more appalling. According to the paper:

The brains typical of certain pathological categories were repeatedly contrasted with the brains of ‘‘normal’’ or ‘‘healthy’’ people. Detail about what exactly constituted normality was not provided. What was clear, rather, was what ‘‘normal’’ people were not: they were not criminal, overweight, homosexual, or mentally ill.

The team from University College London acknowledged that “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.” Likewise, it seems unlikely that the analysis accounted for the way research institutions or scientists presented their work to journalists. And it’s unclear whether or not any of the 2,931 articles were op-eds or other forms of writing that might allow for slanted reporting. Nonetheless, the study marshaled many examples of articles that were, on their face, sensational, and it’s not hard to find their analogs in American media.

The most egregious example in recent months may have been Newsweek’s cover story in early January, which promised “31 ways to get smarter-faster” and “all you need to raise your IQ.” The article, by Sharon Begley, is more cautious than the newsstand-optimized cover lets on, but its potpourri of tips for “buffing” the brain is unconvincing. A cover story in The New York Times Magazine’s special issue on mental health, published April 22, was more honest about how difficult it is to know whether or not humans can actually “build a better brain.”

“To find that training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light,” the reporter, Dan Hurley, wrote.

Stories about “brain optimization” seem to be the most popular category of neuroscience coverage in the US, as they are in the UK, but “the brain as index of difference” and “the brain as biological proof” are also in evidence. Articles purporting to explain “what the gay brain looks like” and voters’ true political beliefs are unfortunately common.

It’s not hard to surmise why neuroscience is so popular in both British and American media. As the paper in Neuron explained:

Contemporary neuroscience carries particular social weight. In today’s secular societies, the brain is an acutely significant organ, represented as the seat of mind and self. Consequently, the production of brain-related knowledge is culturally important, carrying implications for how people see themselves as individuals and human beings.

Because media portrayals of neuroscience can have a strong influence on public understandings of such a wide range of phenomena, however, journalists must resist the temptation to reduce complex research to simple conclusions and project cultural or ideological values onto tentative and uncertain results.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,