When science gets overhyped

Exploring how scientific journals get it wrong

Marie Visca - December 13, 2013

A photo of California's Mono Lake. In 2010, researchers claimed to have discovered life forms in the lake based on arsenic in place of phosphate, but these claims were debunked two years later. The study was referenced during "Hype in Science." (anaurath photo, used under Creative Commons license via Flickr)
A photo of California's Mono Lake. In 2010, researchers claimed to have discovered life forms in the lake based on arsenic in place of phosphate, but these claims were debunked two years later. The study was referenced during "Hype in Science." (anaurath photo, used under Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Peer review is at the heart of academic publishing and research. But what happens when peer-reviewed journals get it wrong when communicating that research?

This past weekend, several Dal faculty took part in an all-day public series of discussions aimed at debunking some of the aspects of the peer-review system. Titled “Hype in Science,” the symposium examined six case studies where claims within scientific research have been oversold or misrepresented to the public.

The event was presented by Situating Science with support from Genome Atlantic, Mount Saint Vincent University’s Science Communication Program and the Dalhousie University Centre for Comparative Genomics and Evolutionary Bioinformatics (CGEB).

Situating Science (www.situsci.ca) is a seven-year national project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Strategic Knowledge Cluster program, which specializes in events and activities promoting communication and collaboration among scientists and humanists and social scientists to explore the broader social and cultural significance of science and technology.

In the wake of many high-profile breakthroughs in top journals turning out to be overhyped, misinterpreted or false, the team behind Situating Science wanted to explore the topic in more detail.

Saturday's panel featured Dal faculty Ford Doolittle (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), Eva Boon (post-doctoral fellow in Biology) and Jock Murray (Medicine), as well as Rosie Redfield from UBC, Florian Maderspacher from Current Biology, and Sarah Richardson from Harvard. To the speakers and audience gathered in King's Alumini Hall, Dr. Doolittle posed the question: How can respectable journals and journalists publish “such crap”?

When scientific findings lose their way


The active researchers presented scientific claims about DNA, gene variants and racial differences in IQ, heritable changes in gene activity, connections between germs and disease, and multiple sclerosis predispositions — all of which were later proven to be misrepresented or false.

“There is reason to be concerned about the rigour of critical discourse,” said Dr. Richardson, emphasizing that even world-renowned academic journals such as Science have fallen victim to overhype.

She said a common theme within her research was scientists agreeing to simply, “let the chips fall where they may.” In other words: there’s sometimes belief within disciplines that if the research and science itself is sound, scientists shouldn't worry about implications from the public interpreting the information wrong.
    
At the end of the day’s presentations, scholars and attendees launched into a roundtable discussion of what could be done about the issue. Audience members asked questions about the hegemonic nature of science, problems with grey areas and variability, and how to address the false dichotomy that if the public gets it wrong, science always has an answer to get it right.

“We know our limitations and we know the risks,” Dr. Murray said. “But we still don't know a lot of things [in science].”

Dr. Richardson echoed this belief, proposing that to address the problem of misrepresentation in science, scientists need to consider how society understands research and move from polarized and formal critiques to transformative conversations with the public.

“If we really want to talk about countering hype, we need to talk about these internal changes within the field of life sciences,” Richardson said. “We need to create conversations to discuss fundamental issues, just like what we're doing today.”

Interviews with the speakers are being uploaded to the Situating Science podcast site (www.podomatic.com/situsci). The event’s discussions were recorded and will be uploaded to the Situating Science YouTube channel in the new year. 


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