Bioethics Blogs

Talking about our work is important but it can land researchers in trouble

The more academics fear being involved in media storms, the less they feel free to explore topics they consider important. Tim Ellis/Flickr, CC BY-NC

In recent decades, the public engagement of academics has increased enormously: the results of academic research are often shared with the public via the media and blogs; academics are interviewed on radio and television shows; and they publish popular books for non-specialist readers, while social media reaches a wide audience instantly.

Though some old-fashioned academics may still live in an ivory tower, many others are more or less enthusiastic “inhabitants” of the web. But this new level of engagement is producing problems and conflicts for which many academics are ill-prepared.

Harms of hype

Some of these problems arise from the communication of research: over-hyped and out-of-context claims may be harmful or misleading.

Claims of sex differences in the brain, for instance, are reported in the media, often in ways that downplay how small the reported effects actually are. And when – as often happens – the effects fail to be replicated, these latest results are not reported.

Many people come to have the impression that “science” has shown the brains of men and women differ in ways that affect cognition, while scientists themselves recognise that any such claim is, at the very least, controversial. They know very well that subsequent research may often reverse the results of a study, but the public may give excessive credence to single studies. And there’s evidence that the negative stereotypes that are thereby reinforced are harmful to women.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.