There has long been a sizable gap in communication between the scientific community and the general public. For many, the sciences are often intimidating and difficult to grasp. Jargon in scientific literature makes science inaccessible to the layman and it can be difficult to succinctly translate scientific concepts into common terms. From the scientific community’s perspective, communicating discoveries in a way that non-scientists will understand is not often a top priority. This disconnect only increases the further one delves into niche science fields.
In terms of discovery, in recent decades, neuroscience has grown in leaps and bounds, and this growth has profound consequences . Frequent and massive influxes of information further exacerbate the gap, which manifests as overblown hype for popularized discoveries, improper utilization in policy, and spread of misinformation. Even now, those interested in translating neuroscience discoveries still fall short of adequately representing the neuroscience community. The brain is a difficult organ to study and even more difficult to explain; like other rapidly growing fields of study, new vocabulary appears almost daily and can seem like a completely different language. Differences in jargon between subfields of neuroscience are incredibly diverse, even befuddling neuroscientists themselves from time to time.
As members of a growing field, neuroscientists have a responsibility to improve the presentation of neuroscience topics to the general public. These experts pioneering advancements in neuroscience are in the best position to bridge the gap between neuroscience and society as they have dedicated their careers to studying the human brain. Failing to do so could harm both the neuroscience community and the general public in the long term. Until then, misinformation sows discord and creates a barrier to progress in both neuroscience research and public understanding of those discoveries.
Neuroscience in the Public Eye: Public Perception
From the push for proper representation of neurodivergent individuals in entertainment to nutritionists explaining the gut-brain connection, advances in the field of neuroscience have become a frequent topic in popular media and everyday conversations. Like scientists, the general public has a great interest in learning more about our beautiful brains. Unlike scientists, however, the average individual in the general public lacks the foundation necessary to adequately understand the research published by neuroscientists. Colorful and strange brain images are eye-catching and interesting to a reader, but to the untrained eye, an electroencephalogram (EEG) looks more like a pen scribble than a recording of the brain’s electrical activity. Even MRIs that readers recognize as brain scans might still look like a vague, dark image with seemingly random colorized regions, but to the neuroscientists producing the scans, these MRIs provide much more information beyond serving as a picture of the brain.
Generally, readers rely on others to take this research and repackage it in a palatable form. While there are many writers of scientific literature that do this assignment justice, there are even more situations where neuroscientific discoveries are misinterpreted, misrepresented, or simply not represented at all. Popularizing neuroscience is certainly good, but there is legitimate concern for current and future misrepresentation of neuroscience topics, including the seductiveness of neuroscience, oversimplification of complex neuroscientific questions, and misleading media coverage .
The Brain’s Persuasiveness
The biological component of neuroscience research creates a unique appeal to its ethos: readers positively bias themselves towards information that is associated with the brain . Neuroscience is viewed as a “hard science,” whereas other sciences like psychology are viewed as “softer” because they are perceived as more qualitative. Research shows that the general public believes neuroscience-related news is automatically more trustworthy than psychological news. Neuroscientific and neurological references to the brain are often given privileged attention, viewed as more objective and thus more trustworthy. One study by Dr. Deena Weisberg and colleagues reported that participants with minimal neuroscience background viewed poor explanations in a better light when incorporating a reference to the brain or neuroscientific rhetoric as compared to more qualitatively-reliant psychology references. This can be harmful when extended in a real-world scenario, where the voice of a neuroscientist or neurologist may be given more credibility than that of a psychologist .
Readers are misled to interpret neuroscience news as a reflection of reality, with news and media articles overlooking the many inferential and processing steps that resulted in the creation of the image or manuscript . Appealing to readers’ faith in the ethos of neuroscience is persuasive and similar to a blind deference to authority. This is not harmful in and of itself if the appeals were in conjunction with sound scientific logic, representing the research adequately. More often though, neuroscience’s ethos is abused because the representation falls short, highlighting the importance of correct and credible information for the common reader.
One way this positive bias is targeted is through misdirected appeals to the authority of neuroscience within popular media. Articles often haphazardly mention neuroscience, misrepresent neuroscientific correlations, or include visuals without real connections to the primary article. Simply adding an MRI scan as a visual within an article can increase the impact and persuasiveness of the article, yet the visual doesn’t have to bear any strong connection to the article’s topic. Even if it does, brain scans are not photos of the brain, but rather a heavily processed image created by scientists to illustrate specific things within an experiment. For example, images of the brain with bright coloration are assumed by readers to be similar to a photograph, which implies that it is a reflection of reality . In reality, neuroimaging data is classified and interpreted by direct ties to behavior, thus it is no more or less reliable on its own than other qualitative methods. Within a single method, neuroscientists may also interpret the same data in different ways and come to different conclusions. This is exemplified in a study published by Tel Aviv University where 70 independent teams of neuroscientists were given the same data set. Despite all teams starting with the same nine hypotheses, no two teams chose identical workflows when analyzing the data . This variability is not well understood by the general public and can cause confusion if not explicitly clarified. Encouraging readers to trust these articles blindly distracts from the need to question the information further and understand the topic accurately .
We know so little about the biological systems that provide the foundation for our identities that any new discovery garners significant attention . Current progress in brain research is undeniably exciting, but there is a certain “brain-mania” occurring in the media. News outlets, social media, and the internet in general magnify neuroscience news to incredible yet often inaccurate levels. Bloated headlines can encourage more link clicks but ultimately have little factual relevance. Adding to the confusion, there is also considerable variation within neuroscience research. Industry and academic researchers approach data analysis differently, largely because they have different neuromarketing goals. Academic researchers on a quest to discover scientific truths will set up experiments with more stringent methods and thresholds to protect and identify statistically significant results. If the analysis shows that the result had a five percent or higher likelihood of happening by chance, it is viewed as statistically insignificant. In contrast, industry researchers focus on forecasting, where a seventy-five percent chance of a positive outcome may be viewed as significant and a “gamble worth taking” . This approach is more beneficial for pleasing shareholders, which is often why industry researchers take to it. Journalists, academics, and those in the industry may have different motivations for promoting neuroscience, but all are guilty of propagating “brain mania,” which, despite neuroscience’s incredible progress, represents a danger of accidentally instilling unwarranted hope — turning correlational discoveries into absolute truth or “scientific law”.
Neuroscientists themselves can be guilty of encouraging media hype, focusing on the “impact factor,” a qualitative sense of this popularity measured by the average number of times a manuscript in a given journal is cited. Scientists tend to describe their work in an exaggerated fashion to foster attention, whether from the scientific community or the general public. And within the scientific community, the success of research is often evaluated based on the status of the journal publishing or the number of times the publication is cited. More popular research receives more attention, which generates support and most importantly, draws funding for future projects . The nebulous hyperbole can be filtered out and dismissed by a reader with an adequate neuroscience background. However, those without a foundation in science do not know that they should, let alone know how to, discern dramatized rhetoric from the significance of experiments. Both readers and popular media rarely analyze scientific findings critically or present alternative interpretations . This absence of a critical eye toward neuroscientific findings by the media and public can result in chaotically inaccurate claims around scientific discoveries, stimulating both baseless optimistic enthusiasm and fear.
The goal, then, should be to exhort and educate neuroscientists on how to improve the way they communicate their work, both in their findings and the limitations of their work. A partnership between scientists and the media can strive to convey a more accurate representation of the promise and complexities within the field of neuroscience. The general public lends neuroscience a great deal of respect but they should also be educated on how to subject these findings to the same critical assessment that scientists apply in their work.
Admittedly, this task is difficult both in theory and in application. It is a challenge to accurately translate complex scientific research in layman terms. A proper solution is a compromise of scientific publications and popular media, ideally addressing the important aspects of scientific discovery in a form that is palatable to the layman. Scientific journalism doesn’t need to rely on alarmism to grab readers’ attention — many scientific writers, medical science liaisons, and content producing sources like Grey Matters Journal adequately bridge the gap and provide accurate interpretation of novel research. Neuroscience researchers can reclaim their narrative by collaborating with scientific writers and participating in interviews, podcasts, or other forms of media coverage. Simply being proactive about research marketing can allow the researcher quality control over how their work is presented to the public. Progress in the future to bridge the gap should improve on both the quality and quantity of scientific media coverage.
Despite the challenge and additional effort required to overcome this barrier, this is a necessary aspect of furthering the field of neuroscience . Currently, overblown and misleading claims around neuroscience create unfounded hope in some, fear in others, and cynicism in still more. The novelty and popularity of neuroscience is unlikely to lose momentum in mainstream media. This adds urgency for current caution when applying neuroscientific discoveries to social issues. While neuroscientists who have dedicated their lives to the study of the brain may be able to discriminate between good and bad neuroscience representation, we cannot assume the same of the general public . Bridging the gap is not only important to accurately reflect the real progress in neuroscience, but also to dispel the confusion around current misinformation. While dramatizing results may be beneficial to researchers and media outlets in the short term, growing mistrust can only harm both parties in the future and needs to be rectified.
Implications in Law: Education of the Judge and Jury
Whether and how neuroscience evidence, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) or other brain scans, should be utilized in courts is still under much debate. Presentation of neuroscience data as evidence in the form of brain images has become increasingly common in criminal and civil litigation . While legal representatives can and should build a foundation in neuroscience knowledge, similar to the general public, the legal system also relies on external sources to interpret neuroscience data. As with any other form of complex evidence, representation of neuroscience in courts requires a professional or expert witness to present and verify evidence. Future growth in neuroscience’s prevalence in courts should be approached cautiously, as the judges and jury are not impervious to the allure of brain data. Within this, not all neuroscience data is relevant or conclusive enough to be significantly helpful in the judge or jury’s assessment of a case. Take, for example, fMRIs, a growing neuroimaging tool due to its wide availability and quality spatial resolution . Ongoing limitations of fMRI methods include individual reliability, and diagnostic and predictive validity for real behaviors, especially socially and culturally determined behaviors. As these methods improve, ethical considerations in the interpretation and appropriate use of this data will become paramount. For example — what might abnormal brain activation patterns mean in the context of moral reasoning, deception, or sexual responsiveness . If researchers standardize abnormal brain patterns, this has the potential to become incriminating evidence. This could be dangerous especially when combined with the considerable variability in interpretation of neural data. Either side within a case can call an expert witness to assess a piece of evidence and come to opposite conclusions. Further still, neuroscientific research may appeal to factors irrelevant in deontological institutions, where these results may play no role in the overall assessment of guilt and appropriate punishment within courts . Recognizing the brain’s persuasiveness also requires caution to circumvent unwarranted appeals to the ethos of neuroscience. Currently, neuroscience evidence is only used as further support for other assessment methods. Situations where brain data may be conclusive enough to contribute are limited to cases where the data shows a clear and undisputed abnormality. For example, an fMRI may show obvious lesions or blood clots creating pressure and influencing cognition. In this case, there may be some unique benefit to neuroscience data in assessing the individual’s role in the case. Similar to other types of scientific evidence, only when analysis of neuroscience data is conclusive can it benefit cases. As methods in neuroscience improve, cases where analysis is clear and undisputed will likely grow in number.
While there may not currently be a space for neuroscientific data in a judge’s assessment of guilt, this data may eventually be useful in sentencing. For example, a large percentage of prison inmates have some history of head trauma or other abnormality . Assessment of mental state and applications of neuroscientific data may be used to request a lighter sentencing for the individual.
A Place in Policy
There is growing promise for neuroscience and neuroethics within public policy. Improving understanding of the human brain can inspire reform in current policies as well as yield new laws that reflect advancing knowledge.
Neuroethical issues appear in criminal law, such as in issues of criminal responsibility . As previously mentioned, there is well documented support that a sizable portion of the American prison population has trauma that strongly impacts mental states. Traditional methods of crime prevention, such as long-term incarceration, are not always effective; it disrupts personal relationships and careers, harms both physical and mental health, and restricts freedoms during and after imprisonment. Despite all this effort to prevent recidivism, this system is largely ineffective. Future policies may evolve to reflect this in lessened or different sentencing in the form of access to treatment. For example, there is increasing utilization of testosterone-lowering treatments to proactively prevent reincarceration in sexual offenders . There is also growing interest in developing pharmaceutical treatments for psychopathy and antisocial behaviors. Progress in neuropharmacology and neurotechnology promise possible applications of neurointerventions to suppress violent aggression and prevent possible crimes. Neuroethicists now face the question of if these neurointerventions should be incorporated into the criminal justice toolbox. Preventing recidivism is a priority within criminal justice, yet pursuing this goal has been empirically ineffective. Attempts to do so often come at the cost of basic human rights, harming the individuals in question. Neurointerventions or other alternatives must be applied cautiously to avoid coercion or as a “band-aid” for larger issues. Still, advances in neuroscience and applications in public policy carries promise of preventing reincarceration in ways that are more effective and humane .
Neuroethics also carries influence in policies related to addiction and juvenile responsibility, as well as many other areas of law, such as tort law, employment law, and health care law. Learning more about the brain and its inner workings brings new questions and potential implications in ethics. How does a new understanding of brain chemistry change our responsibility for our behavior, if it does at all ? The intersection of neuroscience and law is currently an area of much interest among policy makers and ethicists, and will likely continue in the future.
The field of neuroscience is moving forward faster than the general public can keep up with unassisted. This gap in understanding is not due to a lack of eagerness on the public’s part, but rather a disconnect in communication. Science writers’ attempts to bridge this gap are beneficial but washed out by the high prevalence of misleading information in popular media coverage. Popular journalists fail to critically assess neuroscientific discoveries and focus on the “click factor”. The result is distracting misinterpretation of neuroscience research and overblown responses to this misinformation. Unfortunately, this also mitigates the real significance of these discoveries. Science enables us to both appreciate and understand the beautiful world we live in, but this passion should be founded in truth and not misinformation.
Beyond the average public news consumer, the gap in understanding extends to the legal system as well. Justices and people of the jury are also non-scientists. The role of neuroscience in the legal system is two-fold: to avoid abuse and to be utilized as a tool. Courtrooms are vulnerable to the same allure of brain science as the average reader. In contrast, neuroscience shows potential as the basis for reform in public policy as knowledge behind the human brain grows.
Enter neuroscientists, the individuals pioneering the field. After all, who better to represent these incredible discoveries than the researchers that conducted the experiments themselves? The popularization of neuroscience media is a positive good and needs only to be redirected to accurately represent the real advances of neuroscience. Current abuse of the ethos of neuroscience creates significant confusion and presents a real harm if not corrected. The task of bridging the gap should not be delegated to popular media outlets but rather spearheaded by neuroscientists and educational institutions. This can look like neuroscientists reviewing articles before they are published in media outlets or offering data explanations without the nebulus jargon. On the readers’ side, developing a critical eye comes with skepticism, practice, and vigilance to learn when things are being overstated, understated, or misconstrued. Future scientific and popular acceptance of neuroscience demands increasing interaction between neuroscientists and stakeholders such as those in medicine, law, education, and the media to ensure that discoveries are applied for the positive good. Introducing a scientific perspective for interpreting real world data in education at all levels will hit the issue at its core, allowing for improvements in neuroscience representation and understanding.
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