From the Editors: On the Current State of Science Journalism
As we move through the 21st century, psychological science is at a crossroads. We are maturing as a field, albeit with some growing pains. The newest groundbreaking discoveries from cognitive, behavioral, and social scientists impress the academic community, and continue to prove the worth of studying the human mind. At the same time, our “food fights” about proper methodology and publishing norms (among other topics) pave the way for innovations that may end up being the model for scientific practice across a variety of disciplines. Though some of it may raise doubts, it’s actually an exciting time to be a psychologist. And In-Mind serves you to report on these developments. You can read our commentary on issues of scientific practice here, here, here, and here.
But while all of these developments and debates are happening, many of my colleagues and I ponder what positive impact can we have on the non-academic community? What can we do to ensure that the mainstream public (many of whom indirectly fund our salaries and grants through tuition or tax dollars) can benefit from our research? A broader philosophical point that I often discuss with my early career colleagues is what is the actual worth of our academic labor? If a tree falls in an academic journal, does it make a sound? Who utilizes our research, and in what capacity? How can we increase our work’s visibility, so that individuals, families, schools, organizations, communities, and societies can taste the fruit of scientific progress—while in a manner that respects ongoing issues (e.g., replication and publishing norms)? Some of my colleagues frequently express their frustration over the disproportionate weight given by departments and universities to publishing original research findings in obscure journals—journals that will be guarded behind ridiculous pay walls and which will probably only be read by a few like-minded colleagues within our esoteric subfields (and a few enthusiastic outsiders like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks). But I am optimistic that collective efforts to disseminate science will reach the masses and shape how people think about psychology. To that end, I remain active in the efforts to spread science through In-Mind Magazine and related publications, and I encourage my fellow scientists to continue their participation as well. Earlier this year, our movement advanced, as In-Mind expanded its aim and scope to include all areas of psychological science and related fields.
In-Mind Magazine’s original mission, to disseminate psychological science to the general public, fits within the core values of scientific ambassadorship and mainstream science education. These are moral virtues, which are also necessary to maintain the health of the field. In the words of some eminent behavioral scientists I spoke with in recent years, we must show the public why our work matters if for no other reason than the fact that the public controls our budgets. In the wake of recent cuts to research agencies (e.g., NSF) and cuts to higher education, we have only ourselves to blame if we refuse to participate in public discussions about scientific findings. But aside from that, there is a moral imperative. We have an ethical responsibility to give back knowledge to the society that has enabled us to accumulate this knowledge. We must do the job of separating fact from fiction, while clarifying what ideas are valid and what ideas are not, and calling out the fakers who feign expertise in human behavior with little evidence to support their claims.
The knowledge we disseminate is also a direct benefit of research participation. In many countries, participants sign a standard consent form before participating in research, and they nearly always read a section called “Benefits” that describes what they may potentially gain from participation in the study (either directly, as part of the experience, or indirectly, as part of their contribution to science). In-Mind Magazine and other similar publications are exactly this benefit, implied by those consent forms. By publishing research findings openly, freely, and without academic jargon, we guarantee that more people will be exposed to our research findings in a beneficial way. Furthermore, we’re proud of our work and want others to appreciate the fascinating knowledge we have uncovered. Our goal is not only pure science for the joy of discovery, but also the movement to enrich people’s lives. Psychology can change the world. In the words of our founding editor, Hans IJzerman, In-Mind Magazine offers a place for contemplation and reflection, lest people gravitate toward hostile blog posts or Twitter attacks. We encourage all thoughtful scientists to step back, think about what we know (or don’t), and then go back to doing what they do best.
There’s another reason why it is vital for scientists to continue publishing in mainstream outlets: we can help shape public policy. Psychological science has been pivotal in shaping discussions about very important topics across the world. Being that I live in the United States, I’ll include a contemporary issue that my society is dealing with -- prejudice. We are currently working through some really tough problems, including racism and police/community tensions that have taken the forefront of our public consciousness in the wake of recent tragedies and violence. We are now forced to confront the darker side of human nature, as well as our heritage. And in this process, psychologists play a key role. No one knew that even well-intentioned people could be more likely to pull a trigger aimed at people with darker skin (compared to those with lighter skin) until scientists demonstrated the shooter bias. No one knew what implicit prejudice was before the Implicit Association Test was invented, demonstrating that even if people are consciously egalitarian, their unconscious minds may be biased. And new solutions, ranging from innovative police training exercises to decrease mental associations between race and danger, to mindfulness meditation, help pave the way for a stronger and more enlightened society. Psychologists are at the forefront of these discoveries and creative solutions, and we can offer insight into which of these interventions will be most effective. Research findings in this area have far-reaching influence, going as high as the American Supreme Court.
At this point you may be wondering, what about career journalists? Can’t they disseminate research findings for us? Well, in an ideal world, yes. But unfortunately, many mainstream media outlets have demonstrated that they are ill-equipped at best, and overtly biased, at worst, in terms of their science coverage. With a few notable exceptions (see here for an example), science journalism is poor. Take, for example, the surprisingly common belief that vaccinations cause autism, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. If mainstream journalists were doing their jobs well, then these pervasive false beliefs would not exist. As a psychologist, I am truly stunned and saddened by the public misperception of my field’s research, including these prevalent myths: (a) subliminal advertising changes people’s buying habits, (b) people only use 10% of their brains, (c), eyewitness testimony is highly accurate, (d) people are left-brained or right-brained, (e) Myers-Briggs tests accurate measure personality….and the list goes on. Though it is important to note that these problems are certainly not unique to psychology. Scientists who study climate change face very similar challenges, and a large number of people do not believe that humans evolved from other animals existing millions of years ago. The public’s stunning lack of accurate knowledge is an indictment of the mainstream media as an institution for disseminating scientific information. [Quick aside: these problems should not be attributed solely to media; the public knowledge deficit also reflects fundamental flaws in our education system]
Anecdotally speaking, I believe this problem to be due (in part) to the confirmation bias, which is a tendency to seek a preferred conclusion and selectively pick evidence that is consistent with that conclusion (while ignoring or minimizing counter-evidence). Those who work in mainstream media outlets may have an angle or a hook that they want to publish stories about. This leads them to selectively search for information to support their claims. The goal may be to reach a broader audience with stories that are likely to generate more reads, views, or clicks. There is a trend in mainstream American journalism of gravitating toward sensational stories. I have firsthand experience with this problem in my line of research, which involves the study of close relationships, dreams, sexuality, and morality. In the past few years I’ve received dozens of requests for interviews in various media (TV, radio, newspapers, blogs, etc.) on these topics, and very often the conversation will go along these lines: “Our story is about how [insert recent social media trend] is making people miserable and destroying our relationships. We’re seeking a psychologists’ perspective on this issue. Can you tell us why young adults today are so extremely selfish and narcissistic? Is it caused by selfies and Facebook?”
Very often journalists base these stories on unsubstantiated claims, anecdotes, or personal opinion, and when I point this out, it is not well received. The truth is that psychological science is tough, and the conclusions we draw are rarely straightforward or absolute; there are many more unanswered questions than solid answers. It often takes years, if not decades, to have confidence in a particular theory, but unfortunately that may not make for an exciting news story. My responses to direct questions are often something like, “That’s an interesting idea, but we don’t have strong evidence yet to corroborate such claims.” Unfortunately, much of what I (and other scientists) say that does not fit the pre-determined narrative (and eye-catching headline) gets tossed out, ostensibly because the scientific information does not mesh with sensational themes. Of course I realize there are many other variables that matter when determining what stories to run and how to write them, but my hunch is that journalists are looking for specific answers rather than correct answers. This unfortunate trend may have a feedback loop effect of prompting scientists to publish academic articles with “catchy” or “surprising” findings, which are less likely to be independently replicated—and this can be problematic for many reasons.
The pressure to conform to unrealistic expectations in the mainstream media is hugely frustrating for us scientists, who are trying to get factual information out there to the public. Instead, this information is filtered through media with a clear bias toward sensationalism. In my view, mainstream media outlets need to build their credibility by allowing scientific research to be reported with this bias. In-Mind deals with this gap by serving as a direct bridge between scientists and the general public: “What makes In-Mind a reliable teaching tool that functions as a source for public edutainment is that articles undergo peer-review before being accepted. We provide attractive and informative articles geared towards interaction between scientists and non-scientists.” My colleagues at Science of Relationships have a similar mission statement: “There's so much bad information out there, and the key is getting high quality information out to the broadest possible audience in an interesting and useful way so that people start to ignore and/or question the bad information that is out there.” This is why fact-checking stories are so important, and why they have become a hobby of mine. It is extremely important for scientists to carefully correct popular myths and misguided notions.
In conclusion, we cannot rely solely on career journalists in the mainstream media to do the job of disseminating scientific research. We are personally responsible for making it happen. We owe it to our research participants as well as the general public. Psychological scientists play a pivotal role in science education. And besides, it’s an exciting part of the job.