At the end of 2012 the New York Times published a great article highlighting one of the risks of neuroscience getting into the wrong hands. The writer talks about people who misrepresent the brain and neurochemicals. It is said that ‘today’s pop neuroscience, coarsened for mass audiences, is under a much larger attack.’
She raises some interesting points. Neuroscience is fascinating to people. Most of us love to learn about how our brains work. Communicating complex brain science to a lay audience often does result in gross simplification…but does this sometimes go to far? On occasion are things simplified to the point of being plain wrong?
Researchers published an article in the journal Neuron, which stated that ‘logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.’ This was their conclusion after analysis of nearly 3000 neuroscientific articles in the British press over a ten-year period. Another study showed that when information is presented with a picture of a brain scan beside it people are more likely to rate the information as credible. (Even if the brain scan has nothing to do with the information!). These realisations do give us cause to be concerned.
Does this mean we should stop talking about neuroscience? Absolutely not. A neuroscientist I really admire is called Paul Zak. He questioned whether scientists should be talking more to the press. I think they should. Paul is great at helping the public understand his research. Although his ability to communicate to a lay audience is quite exceptional many scientists are very open to helping get their research out to a wider audience.
When I contacted people to ask if I could interview them for my book I was astounded at how willing these busy scientists were to give up their time to talk to me. The people who are trying to bridge the gap between neuroscience and other fields (for me it’s business) are trying to do a good thing. There is a huge amount of valuable research coming from the field that can help people. Is the translation always spot on? Maybe not…but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying!