It can be hard to excite the general public about scientific results unless you talk about potential implications. But it is the duty of researchers and press officers to be crystal clear to avoid causing confusion and distress. Dorothy Bishop compares the actual findings of a recent neuroscience study to its corresponding press release. Science communication has failed if the press release goes so far beyond the data that the headline is based on speculation rather than the findings.
Last week, this was one of the first tweets I saw when I woke up one morning :
In response, a parent of two girls with autism tweeted “gutted to read this. B’s statement has been final for 1 yr but no therapy has been done. we’re still waiting.” I was really angry. A parent who is waiting for therapy for a child has many reasons to be upset. But the study described on the BBC Website did NOT identify a ‘critical window’. It was not about autism and not about intervention.
I was aware of the study because I’d been asked by the Science Media Centre to comment on an embargoed version prior to publication. In brief, the researchers had recruited 108 children aged between 1 and 6 years and done scans to look at the development of white matter in the brain. They were particularly interested in lateralisation: the tendency to have more white matter on one side of the brain than the other, which is thought to relate to language processing.
The main findings I took away from the paper were (a) white matter is asymmetrically distributed in the brains of young children, with many regions showing greater density of myelin (a fatty sheath around nerve fibres) in the left than the right; (b) although the amount of myelin increases with age, the extent of lateralisation is stable from 1 to 6 years. This is an important and novel finding.
The authors also noted interactions between age and lateralisation, so that, in some brain regions, left-sided lateralisation of myelin correlated with language level only in older children. But it’s important to note that this was a cross-sectional study and that on no index was there an age effect on lateralisation. So it does not show that changes in language ability – which are substantial over this age range – are driven by changes in lateralisation of myelin.
So what do the authors say? Well, in the paper, they conclude
The data presented here are cross sectional, longitudinal analysis will allow us to confirm these findings; however, the changing interaction between ability and myelin may be mediated by progressive functional specialization in these connected cortical regions, which itself is partly mediated by environmental influences (p. 16175).
In other words, although they didn’t find differences in the brain structures they measured, they argue that these structures function differently in older children. But they didn’t measure functional specialisation, and, as they appeared to recognise, without longitudinal data, it is premature to interpret their results as indicating change with age.
If you’ve followed me so far, you may be wondering when I’m going to get on to the bit about intervention for autism and critical periods. Well, there’s no data in this paper on that topic. So why did the BBC publish an account of the paper likely to cause dismay and alarm in parents of children with language and communication problems? The answer is because King’s College London put out a press release about this study that contained at least as much speculation as fact. We are told that the study
reveals a particular window, from 2 years to the age of 4, during which environmental influence on language development may be greatest.
It doesn’t do anything of the kind. They say:
the findings help explain why, in a bilingual environment, very young typically developing children are better capable of becoming fluent in both languages; and why interventions for neurodevelopmental disorders where language is impaired, such as autism, may be much more successful if implemented at a very young age.
Poppycock. The study did not look at bilingualism, autism or intervention effects.
A few months ago the same press office put out a similarly misleading press release about another study, quoting the principal researcher as stating:
Now we understand that this is how we learn new words, our concern is that children will have less vocabulary as much of their interaction is via screen, text and email rather than using their external prosthetic memory. This research reinforces the need for us to maintain the oral tradition of talking to our children.
As I noted elsewhere, the study was not about children, computers or word learning.
I can see that there is a problem for researchers doing studies of structural brain development. It can be hard to excite the general public about the results unless you talk about potential implications. But researchers need to remember that there are real people out there whose everyday life is affected by conditions such as autism, and that neither they nor the media can easily discriminate what a study actually found from speculations about potential applications. It is the duty of researchers and press officers to be crystal clear about that distinction to avoid causing confusion and distress.
My advice to all scientists dealing with the media is that you should never mention autism, dyslexia or schizophrenia in a press release unless you have actually done research on those conditions. And remember, the journalist will focus on the most interesting thing you say: all too often speculations about possible implications are more attention-grabbing and accessible than the specific facts of what you did. Science communication has failed, however, if the press release goes so far beyond the data that the headline is based on the speculation rather than the findings.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Dorothy’s BishopBlog and can be found here along with a further discussion. If you would like to comment on this article, please do so on the original post.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Dorothy Bishop is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford and Adjunct Professor at The University of Western Australia, Perth. The primary aim of her research is to increase understanding of why some children have specific language impairment (SLI). Dorothy blogs at BishopBlog and is on Twitter @deevybee.