Hyperbole is the current that runs through much of the public discourse on scientific research. Though research results almost always involve uncertainty, scientific studies are often presented (in the media and elsewhere) as conclusive — especially when they're "promising."
This pattern was amusingly captured this week by John Oliver on a segment of his show Last Week Tonight. Oliver listed off examples of the most egregious headlines of late: A new study shows "pizza is the most addictive food in America," "hugging your dog is bad for your dog," "drinking a glass of red wine is just as good as spending an hour at the gym."
Who's to blame for all this exaggeration? Oliver pointed his finger at the media, singling out the Today show in particular.
But according to the International Society for Stem Cell Research, scientists also need to start taking more responsibility for overhyped claims about their work. Today, for the first time, the group issued guidelines urging researchers to communicate their findings to the public in a more balanced way.
These guidelines place the onus squarely on researchers to prevent hype at the source — a recognition that exaggeration can mislead people and even be dangerous.
First, the guidelines urge scientists to avoid boasting about findings that haven't passed through peer review, and to refrain from "forward-looking statements on inherently uncertain developments, such as predictions on time required until clinical application."
In other words: Wait until a new idea has sufficient evidence to back it up before promising it might save lives outside of the lab. This advice is supported by recent studies on medical science, which have shown that the use of overhyped language — words like "unprecedented," "amazing," "groundbreaking," and "promising"— is on the rise in journals:
If scientists notice their work is getting hyped outside of the lab, they should make every effort to quickly correct the record, the guidelines say, including taking to social media to clear up any misconceptions or hype.
Scientists should also work closely with communications teams at their universities to ensure whatever marketing material goes out to the public accurately reflects the findings of their work — a recommendation that also makes a great deal of sense, given that researchers have found press releases from research institutions often overhype the findings of their scientists and that this misinformation trickles directly into the mass media.
Getting out of the lab and into the community is another way to stop hype, according to the guidelines: "Scientists engaged in clinical research should establish communications with relevant patient and advocacy groups to promote clear understanding of the clinical research process and the current state of progress in developing stem cell-based treatments for specific medical conditions."
Overall, the message here is that public communication is critical in how people understand the potential of given therapies, and that scientists should start working hard to make sure the record is correct.
Are scientists really to blame for science hype?
Tim Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor and one of the guideline authors, said the committee was inspired to issue communications guidance after noticing that the problem seems to be getting worse — and that it can cause a great deal of damage.
"Hundreds of [stem cell] clinics have [opened] all over the world marketing unproven therapies, and they can leverage the hyped language that flows from the scientific community and finds its way into the popular press," he said.
That's not to mention the damage science hype can do to the scientific enterprise itself. (As Oliver said, too much science exaggeration can leave the public wondering: "Is science bullshit?")
There's a lot of blame to pass around about the cause of science hype. According to one interpretation, the pressure on scientists to find amazing discoveries in order to secure funding is at least partially driving the trend.
On the journalism side, researchers have found that reporters seem to be employing hyperbole more frequently. (Although, in that study, a good deal of the hype came from doctors who were quoted using language like "miracle" or "game changer" to describe new cancer drugs, often without justification.)
What's refreshing about the new stem cell guidelines is that they acknowledge hype in science has become a real problem, take responsibility for the issue and empower researchers to do so, too.