Dive into almost any issue in the news these days and it won’t take long to find a neuroscience angle. Morality has roots in the brain. Adolescence is best understood by what is not yet in the brain. The ebbs and flows of the stock market are tied to neural activations. And even the difference between liberal and conservative ideology can be seen in the brain.
This increased focus on neuroscience has brought with it brilliant studies with important applications in helping us understand and address social issues—like what a better system of juvenile justice looks like, how addiction can be prevented, and how we can identify and limit toxic stress to improve outcomes for children. Unfortunately this caravan of fantastic science is laced with a few stragglers—flawed studies and bad science. When these outliers get pointed out—and they usually do—we get a glimpse of how science, culture and public opinion come together to influence each other.
“Hot” areas of science inevitability produce some less-than-hot science. When you cross this reality with a fundamental public misunderstanding of what science is and how it works, you create a situation that leads people to throw the baby out with the bath water.
FrameWorks has found that Americans, Canadians, Brits and (especially) Australians model science, in part, as a fickle, uncertain and unreliable endeavor. I won’t get into why this is, but you don’t have to look too hard to see the ways in which this cultural model plays out in the media. When the science skepticism cultural model gets piqued by coverage of bad science or of the limitations of science, people start to question the validity of the entire endeavor.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw this phenomenon on a trip to the UK, where, based on a couple of dodgy studies, there has been a recent backlash against the ability of neuroscience to say anything meaningful about the developmental effects of adverse childhood experiences or what constitutes effective interventions.
At a meeting of leading international developmental scientists I found myself in the middle of a conversation about this runaway anti-science trope—a trope that threatened the implications and applications of the solid science that members of this group had spent their lives developing. “How do we deal with this backlash?” they asked.
From a framing perspective, this moment and the conversation that followed were interesting for two reasons:
- You could see culture in action. The media’s questioning of neuroscience was causing members of the public to doubt the ability of all science to say anything about policy and programs. This was a strong reminder that culture is a powerful but not always rational shaper of how we think. Sure there are bad studies of the brain, but that doesn’t mean that the good ones can’t teach us valid and valuable lessons.
- You could see the difference between a science and communication science perspective. The developmental scientists’ resounding solution to the science-pushback was…do better science, reasoning that if they did better science, the problem would be solved. My perspective and that of communication scientists, however, was that while doing better science certainly wouldn’t hurt, getting people to think differently about science through better science communication was a vital part of the solution.
Doing quality neuroscience is certainly part of the answer, but, having better ways of communicating about neuroscience is vital in assuring that what we know about the brain informs what we do about social issues.