The "black box" effect in science communication

To counter sensationalist journalism and to bring the public closer to the realities of research, science communication must focus on the how and why of science: from experimental design to analysis, and from its strengths to its weaknesses.

In July 2016 scientists found out how to map the brain into dozens of new areas using neuroimaging. We also discovered that thousands of such brain scanning studies may be flawed. To someone lacking insight into neuroscience, these two equally important studies can seem conflicting. Although “science communication” happens everywhere, science can still feel like a black box to the public, mysteriously churning out breakthroughs which are packaged and relayed by a barrage of tweets and headlines.

This caricaturing of science is confusing and misleading. “Breakthrough as scientists create first drug to halt Alzheimer's disease,” breathlessly reads one. “Betting study used monkey brains,” cries another, this one fuelled by the activities of animal rights campaigners. Though not alone, animal research is a particularly frequent victim of the “black box effect.” This is at least partly due to scientists’ reluctance to speak about animal research, ironically stemming from anxiety about misrepresentation of their work, or even possible retaliation from animal rights activists.

Science is not a string of groundbreaking discoveries communicated through press releases, tweets, and hurried mass emails. Rather, it is incremental, nuanced, and often contradictory. It is defined as much by its methods and their limitations as it is by its breakthroughs. For science communication to work, it has to embrace this complexity, bringing the scientific method, and its baggage, to the foreground.

In neuroscience, for example, scientists use electrodes, implanted inside animals' brains, to observe how neurons in a given area respond to a particular event. When compared side by side with headlines describing the latest study of human brain scans, it is difficult to see why such an invasive and “cruel” electrode experiment is justified. To an expert, it’s obvious that using animals allows for greater control than can be expected in a human experiment, and that using implanted electrodes gives precision in measuring brain activity. Both are factors that contribute to better science, and are impossible to achieve in human brain scanning. On the other hand, it is also obvious that human studies can investigate phenomena more directly relevant to society. The bottom line is that both types of studies are indispensable. The public, however, does not have access to this context, an ignorance which is exploited by the news media that, in an effort to recoup plummeting revenues, rely on sensationalist headlines. This must change.

Journalists operate under their own constraints. They cannot be expected to double the length of their articles to include all possible caveats for each new study. Instead, the scientific method, as distinct from results, should be a target in itself for all forms of science communication. Science presenters, writers, YouTube stars, and scientists themselves should aim to engage the public in matters of how science is done: from experimental design to analysis, and from its strengths to its weaknesses. This is a challenge: the material is more technical and less sexy, and the social relevance is obscured.

What to do, then? Virtual lab tours of animal facilities are a direct way to promote transparency and combat ignorance. Science festivals and other tangible forms of engagement are also key avenues. This is where abstract descriptions of “what scientists do” can come alive. A simple demonstration also goes a long way: at a recent festival, a few colleagues and I recorded electrical brain activity from the surfaces of visitors' heads. People were astonished both by how informative and ultimately limited the signal is — such techniques are routinely used in neuroscience research with great success, but they must be complemented by invasive recordings in animals. Fortunately, our demo at the science festival was a neat opportunity to chat about these issues. Journalists, too, can find the right angle to discuss the how and why of science.

With the right tools in the right environment, conversations about how science is done can emerge. All of this requires creativity, time, and patience, but is certainly worthwhile if the aim is to gain the public's trust, and to open up the black box not only to the worried and sceptical, but also to the hopeful and curious.