NEW YORK, New York, United States
September 25
IR Maven
PR guy. Writer. Seeker. Lover. Wounded idealist. Avid student of Campbell, Jung, and Freud. New Yorker (for the past 20 years). Born in the former USSR. Most of my recent writing focuses on the collapse of public trust in the society's institutional pillars. My other blog is at http://janashvili.wordpress.com/


Editor’s Pick
MAY 6, 2012 10:58PM

Sensationalizing Neuroscience

Rate: 6 Flag

Don’t judge this article in the Scientific American by its headline: “Neuroscience Coverage: Media Distorts, Bloggers Rule”.  The headline implies that the scholarly research behind the article simply regurgitates the tedious debate about whether journalists or bloggers better serve the interests of truth and balance.  In reality, the report by the researchers at The University College of London raises and answers far more important questions about how the media can distort neuroscience discoveries and engender broad public misperceptions about the human brain and consciousness.

In some respects, the study — Neuroscience in the Public Sphere — supports an argument that hardly needed further support;   namely, the researchers showed that the media often sensationalize and politicize neuroscientific research findings.  Though not shocking, this finding serves as a timely and humbling reminder to the high-minded voices of traditional media who have made a hobby of ridiculing the mounting challenges to their waning authority.

Remembering Entremed: The Cure for Cancer

In 1998, The New York Times published a front-page article by Gina Kolata under the headline “Hope in the Lab: A Special Report – A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs that Eradicate Tumors in Mice.”  Focused on two early-stage anti-angiogenesis drugs not even ready for human trials, the article described these product candidates as so promising that they might “cure cancer in two years.”

Not surprisingly, the story quickly rippled through the national media.  Aside from giving false hope to thousands of patients,  Kolata’s story also triggered a speculative frenzy in the shares of Entremed, the biotech company developing the two compounds.

The Impact of Hype 

The controversy grew more complex after several cancer researchers, including the ones quoted in the article, questioned the accuracy of the statements attributed to them.   Then, we learned that Kolata was trying to score a $2 million book deal based on her coverage of the cancer cure.  In a survey of science writers conducted soon after these revelations, 83 percent of the respondents agreed that Kolata had violated journalistic ethics.  Apparently, these violations do not constitute a grave sin in journalism, merely a misdemeanor adequately remedied by a footnote correction.  Kolata, in the meantime, continues to serve as The New York Times science writer.

Of course, Kolata’s cancer-cure story cannot indict an entire profession, but it does exemplify what the University College researchers eloquently confirmed: news organizations remain far too tolerant of sensationalist treatment of important subjects such as cancer and neuroscience, among others.


The rise of citizen journalism understandably irritates some professional journalists who see the trend as an intrusion of Vox Populi into the gated community of professional journalism.  Many voices of traditional media like to caricature the growing influence of the blogosphere as a flood of ignorance polluting the global public square.  The same critics also resist the increasingly inescapable conclusion that the broadening segment of enlightened bloggers performs an invaluable service: it exposes and compensates for the failures of traditional media. 

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I agree with you entirely. Since there's no "objectivity filter" on the internet, you can get plenty of I WAS ELVIS' SPACE ALIEN BABY moments, as well as ignorant jerkwads who don't know jack.

However, intelligent posters with either an empirical bent, albeit with a specific ideological persuasion, can add valuable information to the stream of knowledge. I've found that these often unsung bloggers act as players who assist the big stars on the NY Times , Scientific American,or equivalent to make their points to a broader public.

I've been in this position a whole bunch of times. When it happens, I just consider myself a utility soccer player who just happened to set up Pele with the winning goal. No credit. No money. But I can put another gold star on my wall.

And that ladies and gentlemen, is the power of the internet -- and why it's so important to continue to think and do your postings and brain farts on the net.
To my first sentence in my second paragraph, I should have added "particular expertise in the field they're blogging in."
Thanks, Lefty. I love the Pele analogy. As most bloggers, I see myself as telling stories that I feel need to be told, expressing views that have not received the attention I feel they deserve. We are all stars, and our work sheds light on the world around us. The more light, the more clarity.
Watch what you read or caveat emptor always applies.
You make a really important point. The print and broadcast media have degenerated to the point that they are merely pimping products for their corporate masters. While bloggers can often have ideological biases, these are usually readily apparent. Whereas a journalist will rarely disclose that he/she has a financial incentive to promote a specific scientific innovation.
Exactly right, Jackie. And, Dr. Bramhall, that's certainly a great distinction between bloggers and journalists. Given the clear evidence of sensationalism in the media, the veil of objectivity seems laughable.
Great post. With all the "breakthroughs" and "blockbuster findings" in medicine that have been reported in the media, by now our senior citizens ought to be running four-minute miles and we all ought to be living to 200. But we're not.

Nortin M Hadler MD, author of Worried Sick, said “I am convinced that complementary and alternative therapies thrive best whenever my guild, which requires and M.D. for admission, is behaving in an unconscionable manner.” Maybe we ought to think of blogging as "alternative journalism" which thrives best when professional journalists are behaving in an unconscionable manner.
I write a medical advice blog under the name "Dr. Eric Von Schinkenhammer."

"The Benefits of Jalapeno Enemas" was my best work (and got the most email).

Very interesting post. It will be fascinating to see how the blogosphere evolves. I note that a number of people contribute relevant critical or narrative posts about their professional fields, their little corners of the world--it's a valid intersection of thought. Some paid journalists as well maintain blogs on specific topics that in turn influence more mainstream discourse. Perhaps it will be the case that we won't so easily be able to tell them apart .
The burden of objectivity on the internet is carried by the reader. To get an idea of how bad journalism can be we only have to go back to the late 1800s when the most preposterous stories were reported as fact. Professional journalists tried to change that in the 20th century and developed a standard that was quite high. Unfortunately, no profession is free of crooks, quacks, or ruthlessly ambitious people. The constant pressure from above to find news that sells advertising must bring the worst actors to the top.

I also imagine that with the constant decline in the sales of print media ethical standards are more strained than ever.

Blogging is in its infancy as a source of information. It will be interesting to see how it evolves; whether some standards will arise for accuracy and balance, whether an organization of professional bloggers with entry requirements and peer review of articles will develop giving readers some assurance that what they are reading is not crap.

There is probably no more hidebound group of individuals on the earth than medical researchers, still their criticism of the sensationalism of the mainstream media needs to be heard. R
Very interesting. I have an interest in neuro science but it never even occurred to me to blog about it . I think this is for the same reason that I would never write non- fiction history. The fact checking and citation would be well beyond my abilities. I wonder that a blogger could possibly have such impact against the fact checking of any of the major media outlets.
Very interesting. I have an interest in neuro science but it never even occurred to me to blog about it . I think this is for the same reason that I would never write non- fiction history. The fact checking and citation would be well beyond my abilities. I wonder that a blogger could possibly have such impact against the fact checking of any of the major media outlets.
Snarky, I think that, in the neuroscience area, bloggers can have a positive impact by exposing sensationalism in mainstream coverage. Beyond that -- perhaps more important than that -- we can contribute to public understanding of neuroscience by sharing the stories of patients/people grappling with illnesses such as Alzheimer's, depression, traumatic brain injury, etc. There's also an opportunity, I think, to shed more light on the work of philosophers like Daniel Dennet and others who focus on the many puzzles of human consciousness. No doubt, neuroscience is the next big thing in medical research, and we can do our part to aid this research in saving and improving lives.
Intelligent dinosaurs ruling alien worlds. Here's an amusing case study of how good science leads to sensationally bad journalism/PR.