Breaking the Hype Cycle

Breaking the Hype Cycle

By Izzy Morin, Contemporary Studies Program and Sustainability

Hype In Science, or “How can respectable journals publish such crap” presented six case studies of the problem of corruption, overhyping, and misrepresentation of science. Hand-in-hand with this discussion of current practice came questions of an uncertain future. What would prevail, the sometimes dystopic vision of science without the peer-review system, the bright prospect of renewed passion in researchers restoring the integrity of science as an institution, or both? The session at University of King’s College presented cases from many sides of the scientific world: the speakers included a peer-reviewed journal editor, researchers, and scientific authorities.

In many cases the problem of overhyping and misrepresentation was discussed as embodying a cyclical motion involving researchers, journals, and research institutions. Hope lay in the possibility of breaking the cycle. Breaking the cycle implied that researchers have a responsibility to monitor their own fields, and to question their own theories. According to Dr. Rosie Redfield, researchers must constantly be trying at once to prove and to disprove their own evolving theories, as well as applying diligent critique to other theories evolving alongside their own. The intensified self-scrutiny acts as another defense against misrepresentation.

The consequences of not engaging in a critical conversation were discussed as having the possibility of being dire, especially in fields that impact the public as directly as medical research. As Jock Murray, MD, discussed while presenting the case study of multiple sclerosis and liberation therapy, overhyped or slanted research can impact the popularization of medical treatments. Murray argued that the media is part of the problem. Many of the reporters, in this case, did not read any of the research that went into the pieces they wrote about the treatment. They only passed along the information as it had already been presented by others, resulting in the treatment being take up without adequate understanding. What is responsible in this case? The uninformed hype, the researcher, or the public?

This case is just one of the clearer examples of the problem of fractured transference of knowledge from labs to media. The ongoing climate change debate is another clear example of data being skewed to serve a purpose outside of science’s best interests.

Questions of morality were also brought to the table in the same breath as the issues of misrepresentation during the talks. Is a researcher responsible for the outcomes of their own research, after it has been taken up by others? What are methods that researchers can use to prevent the skewing of their research by others?

Some speakers held that part of the responsibility of researchers lies in impacting science outside of the peer-review system. If a researcher is truly dedicated to the integrity of their field, they can go beyond the call of grant-attracting research and delve into the public sphere. For example, reviewing and editing Wikipedia articles, or blogging actively about the research that they are doing are ways that researchers can make their research closer to the sphere of public understanding.

But according to some of the speakers, the overhyping of science is simply a symptom deeper faults within the peer-review system. The faults lie in journals’ seeking ground-breaking theories above all else, and as a result, researchers are under more pressure to come up with shiny new theories. In this desperation, researchers are more likely to manipulate existing research to suit the end of their theory.

No matter what the skewing of science implies, the call to arms was clear from every speaker: no one person is responsible for the misrepresentation of science and research, but everyone, from researcher to reporter to citizen, can affect the integrity of science.