Brain Hacks: Neuroscience is the ‘hardest of the hard’

Some of the science writers who descended on the Royal Society to attend the UKCSJ would say that science is a special case in journalism; that because of the complexities of the subject matter, ‘rules,’ like not showing copy to sources, can – and perhaps should – be broken. But not all science is equal, and the session on neuroscience, Brain Hacks, concluded that if science is tricky to report on, neuroscience is downright difficult.

Many of the problems familiar to science journalists are exacerbated when covering neuroscience, said Kerri Smith, who podcasts about neuroscience at Nature. She outlined the problems in her talk, saying: “We haven’t even finished mapping the brain, so how can we write or pitch stories about the neuroscience of whatever if we don’t even have a full map?”

Because it is a young discipline, there are few ‘breakthrough’ or ‘cure’ stories in neuroscience, and as such it can be “hard to tick the ‘why do I care box,’” said Smith.

Giovanna Mallucci, a professor of neuroscience with the Medical Research Council said academics’ desire to get noticed was a complicating factor. Even though there are few big leaps in understanding, some scientists are still tempted to sell their work as if that’s what they are.

Vaughan Bell, a neuroscientist at King’s College London who also writes about neuroscience, highlighted the fact that the subject can affect people directly in a way that more abstract science does not. He especially dislikes stories which report a particular condition as having been found to “have some neuroscience behind it”. However, he was worried about how this portrayed mental illnesses which don’t have such an easily interpretable physiological basis. Overall, this kind of reporting can give the dangerous impression that people with mental illnesses in the latter category are “just being a bit wet,” he said.

The question and answer session focused on the difficulty of finding helpful expert opinions on developments in neuroscience. Bell agreed that in more complex areas like neuroscience there are more differing opinions.

Smith agreed, saying that since neuroscience papers often have authors with disparate expertise – from instrumental methods to physiology – it can be demanding to acquire an authoritative critique on all fronts. She said the key was to have a “bank of people whom you trust to turn to”.

Asked how journalists could attempt to pre-screen papers for scientific rigour Bell cited a wiki which advises scientists on best practice when publishing fMRI data. It could be useful for some journalists too. Mallucci baulked at the question, saying that journalists would need a very deep skill set to assess neuroscience papers effectively.

Colin Blakemore, a neurobiologist from Oxford University arrived late to chair the discussions. But in the spirit of some of the low-end neuroscience coverage the panel denounced, he amusingly blamed neurology. “It’s not my fault I’m late,” he said, “my brain made me do it.”

Josh Howgego, UKCSJ student scholar