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Guest editorial on selling and over-selling science.

At the moment, scientists are receiving two conflicting messages. (1) "Let the data speak for itself" and (2) "Communicate your research to the public." These two messages are for the most part mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the public cannot understand data when it is speaking for itself; therefore, to communicate their research to the public scientists have to simplify it, turning it into an easily digested story. On the other hand, simplifying a scientific finding without being misleading in some small way is extremely difficult. The question becomes, is it possible to be both accurate and accessible when explaining a scientific finding? And where is the line between selling and overselling science?

Sacrificing accuracy for accessibility

As a fledgling science blogger, I am learning exactly how many caveats to put after each statement. It usually goes something like this: "The researchers found X." But then I think "hmmm, that's not the whole story," so I revise to "The researchers found X, but only when Y was active." But usually that's not the whole story either, and something like this spills out: "The researchers found X, but only when Y was active and Z was applied at a concentration of 2.3 units, but not 10 units, and the difference was only significant at 0.043, so it's not that strong an effect, but then again they were applying a very conservative statistical correction so p = 0.043 is actually pretty good" ... After this disaster of a sentence, I usually go back and settle for one of the simplified statements. The problem is that "the researchers found X" is never the whole story, and the whole story is usually unreadable by non-scientist standards.

For a specific example, it is often stated that "dopamine is the reward molecule." This is a simplification, of course. A more accurate statement would be that dopamine is released by the substantia nigra pars compacta or the ventral tegmental area and activates five different types of receptors in the dorsal striatum, which is involved in motor control and habit learning, and in the nucleus accumbens, which is implicated in reward processing and in many other brain regions. Dopamine triggers an intracellular signaling cascade that activates the cyclic AMP activated protein kinase, but only when it binds to the DI class of receptor. When it binds to the D2 class of receptor, it inhibits the cyclic AMP activated protein kinase. .... and so forth. One statement sacrifices accuracy for accessibility, while the other is accurate, but impenetrable. A non-scientist would probably lose interest in the accurate statement around the phrase "substantia nigra pars compacta." Sometimes the public just can't handle the whole story because the whole story is too complicated and boring.

Is it better for the non-scientist public to learn that dopamine is the reward molecule or to not know or care about the term dopamine? While there are certainly two sides to this question, I believe that simplified information is better than no information at all. It is better for the public to learn these simplified bite-sized science morsels than to learn nothing at all. Learning usually takes place this way: You learn a simplified version of something first, and then you learn the details behind it. If people already know that dopamine is a reward molecule, they will be more interested in a new finding that says "actually dopamine does such and such also" or "neurotransmitter X also is rewarding."

Selling and over-selling science

Above, I argue that to effectively communicate science, sometimes you truly have to sacrifice accuracy details for accessibility and that sometimes the tradeoff is justified. However, how much accuracy is too much to sacrifice for the sake of an understandable story? First, a clarification--there is a huge difference between simplifying and lying. Obviously if the scientific finding that "obese people like the smell of rose better than magnolia" is reported as "obese people hate flowers," the science was not communicated. Media reports of scientific findings can be blatantly incorrect, and most everyone agrees that these reports are ridiculous and unethical. Where is the line between simplification and falsification?

The easiest way for simplification to step over the fuzzy line into falsification is through the exaggeration of a finding. Selling a scientific result as exciting and interesting is great, but over-selling it as a cure to all the world's ills is dangerous. An excellent example of this is deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS, the stimulation of deep brain structures with a high-frequency pulse, has been shown to effectively treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease and severe depression. It is a true "miracle cure" if there ever was one. However, the simplification that "DBS cures depression" is a subtle exaggeration. DBS requires serious surgery, and the long-term side effects are not yet fully understood. Implying that DBS is a cure without consequences is irresponsible and could mislead people, even doctors, into using it when it is not necessarily the right choice. To simplify a finding is one thing, but to exaggerate it as a ready-to-use cure or to imply that a treatment has no side effects is over-selling.

The "dopamine is a reward molecule" statement above is an acceptable simplification, while "dopamine cures autism" is an unacceptable exaggeration. The first statement might lead to curiosity and further learning, whereas the second statement might lead parents to give untested L-DOPA supplements to their children. There is a line between selling and over-selling science. It lies in the exaggeration of possible applications and the omission of possible consequences of a finding.

When selling science is just telling science

On 6 August 2012, cheers of "Science! Science! Science!" and chants of "NASA, NASA, NASA" rang out in Times Square as the Curiosity successfully landed on Mars. People clapped and cheered and even choked up on seeing the rover land on the red planet. The technology used to accomplish this feat is cutting edge and complicated, but the public didn't need to hear about every gear and mechanism in the rover to understand that a robot was landing on Mars. This event serves as a reminder that the public is interested in science when they understand it. While it may seem that science could progress just as well without the public knowing anything about it, the truth is that public interest actually drives science. It can change the funding conditions for research indirectly through political candidate and position support, and directly through charitable donations or the crowd funding of research projects. Even intangible, non-monetary cultural changes can subtly influence the direction or speed of scientific progress.

We are all lucky when selling science is simply telling it, but unfortunately most research is not so easily communicated. For those times the scientists' primary job is to communicate their work accurately (in a peer-reviewed journal); it is only a secondary job to communicate that work accessibly. Other people such as science journalists have the primary job of simplifying complex findings. A journalist's detailed accuracy, while extremely important, is at the service of accessibility. This is how it should be. Rarely can one person do both jobs well, and the simple condition of having to do both jobs might lower the quality of each. The highest quality scientific communication results not from forcing a scientist to simplify or from forcing a journalist to expound on all the details and caveats in a finding. Our best hope for getting the public interested in a scientific finding without misleading them is a close collaboration between scientists and journalists. In the ideal collaboration, the journalist translates the scientific finding into an accessible and interesting story, and the scientist reads the coverage of the work to verify its accuracy. The more closely the scientist and journalist work together, the better the chance that science will be communicated both accurately and accessibly.


I would like to acknowledge funding from NINDS through the pre-doctoral NRSA grant 1F31NS066645, and I thank Sarah Hawes and Martin Coleman for reviewing versions of this editorial.

--Rebekah C. Evans

Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study

George Mason University
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Author:Evans, Rebekah C.
Publication:The Biological Bulletin
Article Type:Guest editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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