Science Fact vs. Fiction: The Public Deserves to Know the Truth
By: Adam Santoro
Consciousness is difficult to define. Its relationship to other cognitive phenomena and even its very existence is often debated. Some philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, believe that consciousness does not exist. Others, such as John Searle, argue that consciousness is a purely biological problem and its ontology can be understood exclusively through science. In addition to the widely varying viewpoints between theologians, philosophers, and scientists, there is often disagreement between individuals within a specific field. The journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences recently published a series of articles in a consciousness-themed issue, and each author had seemingly incompatible viewpoints about the subject. At the very least, it is obvious that the topic is extremely complicated. A stroll through the science section in your local bookstore, however, will suggest otherwise.
In a recent issue of the IMS Magazine I reviewed a book called The Illusion of Conscious Will, which offers a view of consciousness that is increasing in popularity. The author states that consciousness is a mere feeling, and the concept of free, conscious willing is an illusion. He gives evidence from psychological experiments that demonstrate how human behaviour can arise from purely unconscious brain events; then extrapolates this to the stance that all behaviour can be explained by unconscious events, and consciousness is just a useful by-product. The ideas and experiments presented in the book were definitely interesting. However, it suffered from a common problem in popular science literature: it forced conclusions from insufficient data, and sensationalized the research. With such a complex topic as consciousness and free will, the results of some neuroscience and psychology experiments do not point to a unified theory of consciousness, and to pretend that they do is disservice the science. When writing for the lay audience, journalists and scientists should strive to explain concepts simply, but they should never resort to inflating conclusions and sensationalizing research. This behaviour gives the public a flawed view of science, inevitably leaving science to defend itself against those who doubt its efficacy in attaining knowledge about the world.
There is a propensity for writers to almost exclusively present their personal thoughts on a topic, often while inflating conclusions to really drive their point home. On the surface, this seems harmless: if it is the author’s own book why should he not be able to present arguments for his own theory? And what about those theories that are obviously true, and fully agreed upon by the scientific community (for example, an author’s personal opinion may be that evolution is true, which is also an opinion that the scientific community holds as a whole)? Texts discussing well established, successful scientific theories should not have to concede page space to opposing theories simply because a few straggling deniers exist. However, for unestablished theories, more care is needed. In the mainstream media (i.e., best-selling books, newspapers, etc.), the target audience is generally uninformed about scientific topics, and even the process by which science makes progress. If an author presents a single viewpoint, the average reader will interpret it as an established fact. Moreover, if the author presents various lines of evidence and forces his own conclusion, the average reader will suppose that scientific progress follows exactly as presented by the author. This is of course troublesome, since even a casual reader of popular science will eventually form doubts: “You talk about a study in mice and you come up with that conclusion of human cognition? How is science any different from believing in the tooth fairy?”
Scientists and journalists must communicate unestablished ideas to the mainstream audience with a degree of skepticism and they should always present the appropriate conclusions. If they do not, then readers of science journalism will rightfully doubt the content, and begin to question the authority of science in answering questions about the world. Science should be popularly known as the best method for attaining knowledge; the fact that fields such as Naturopathy and ideas such as Intelligent Design are so prominent among the non-dogmatic, average population is testament to (at least, in part) the failure of scientists and journalists to adequately represent science and research findings.
Often scientists are not to blame; instead, it is the journalists, especially those from newspapers who simply report on topics they find in science journals. How many readers have you heard say, “First they say caffeine is bad for you, then they say it is good for you—why don’t these scientists just decide already”? This is a journalistic error. New studies must always be analyzed within the context of previous research, and journalists must acknowledge that a new study does not immediately usurp previous results. Science does not work this way. Mass confusion among the public will only degrade public opinion about science’s ability to understand natural phenomena. Journalists, and especially scientists who may be involved in the reporting process, must ensure that appropriate conclusions are reported within an already established framework of what is known.
Scientific discoveries are often sensationalized. Perhaps this arises from ego issues; everyone wants their research to be important. However, sensationalization is just as harmful to the public opinion of science as the declaration of unfounded conclusions. Even worse, prestigious scientific journals aimed towards scientists are often the culprits of sensationalization. If scientific journals cannot get it right, how can newspapers (whose authors often act as lay-person translations to text found in journals)? Reporting a recent “discovery,” the journal Science released a news story proclaiming the end of the concept of junk DNA1 (DNA that has no biological function, often calculated to represent a significant proportion of the genome). This story came about from a recent project called the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE), which stated that, contrary to the junk DNA hypothesis, approximately 80% of the human genome is biochemically active, and hence “functional.” A number of biochemists and molecular biologists, including University of Toronto’s Larry Moran (http://sandwalk.blogspot.ca/), are actively opposing the conclusions of this project (and for good reason—for more information, visit Dr. Moran’s blog, as well as an analysis by John Timmer http://arstechnica.com/staff/2012/09/most-of-what-you-read-was-wrong-how-press-releases-rewrote-scientific-history/2/). The project used non-standard definitions of “functional,” and the conclusions misrepresented the story the data actually told. Nonetheless, and details aside, why would a prestigious journal write a story claiming that new data from a single project is replacing all previous data used to calculate the proportion of junk DNA? Shouldn’t more care be taken to report the appropriate conclusions of the experiments, expand on the exact definitions used for these controversial terms, and then place the results in the context of previous research? It is once again a matter of skewing results, misinterpreting definitions and data, inflating conclusions, and sensationalizing research.
The science section in popular bookstores is larger than ever—they are inundated with best-selling books that promise to provide the lay reader with an understanding of evolution, the brain, physics, psychology, etc. These books are often written by scientific experts with excellent publication records and significant contributions to their fields. Regrettably, a majority of these popular science books present views of scientific topics that are overly simplified, and are presented in a manner that suggests widespread agreement among those “in the know.” This type of reporting fails to sufficiently educate the public on the process of scientific discovery, and is a bane to science as a whole. Scientists and journalists have a responsibility to give science its due justice so that it may attain the rank within society that it deserves. So, the next time you cringe when someone tells you they are “left-brained,” don’t shoot the messenger—aim for the message’s author instead.