How Science Works: Neuroscience in the Media

Neuroscience in the media

This months The Psychologist (BPS, June 2012, Vol 25, no 6) includes an article, in their News section (page 408), highlighting the issue that UK newspapers often fail to report findings from neuroscience accurately; relying on sweeping sensationalised statements and conclusions which are not back up by the data.

AQA A: How Science Works

The AQA A Psychology specification requires students to:

“appreciate the ways in which society uses science to inform decision making” as part of the requirement to address the How Science Works principles.

Students should become aware through their A Level studies that, as the media is one of many influences on the individuals and bodies that make the decisions that impact on society, it is important that research is reported responsibly. The misreporting of brain-based research, therefore, is potentially dangerous if policies and practices are built on beliefs that come from claims that lack validity and are, in some cases, socially sensitive.


This is regarded as a serious enough issue that researchers at UCL have been investigating how the media represents neuroscience. UCL researchers, Cliodhna O’Connor, Geraint Rees and Helene Joffe, have analysed press reports, based on neuroscience research findings, published between 2000 and 2010 (Neuron, Volume 74, Issue 2, 220-226, 26 April 2012).

The researchers argue that if neuroscientists can anticipate how their findings might end up being reported in the media, and where they could become sensationalised or misunderstood, then they can address this directly in their research to ensure that the findings are not taken out of context or generalised too far beyond the study.

Ideas for the Psychology classroom

Content analysis

Ask students to find articles in the news and scrutinise the articles for language which may have the potential to be misleading or unfounded. This could be a good way to familiarise students with qualitative research methods as they could begin by drawing up a list of words/phrases or features they will be looking for, in a content analysis. For example, an article which uses words such as proof or conclusive rather than suggests or implies may be misleading.


One of the themes identified by the research, and reported in the BPS article, is that journalists tend to use “neuroscience evidence as a way of providing biological support for a social argument”. The article refers to an article entitled “How the Twitter age of rolling information has robbed fans of compassion” (Daily Mail online, 03/06/2009), as example of inappropriate extrapolation. Students could be asked to come up with their own headlines for the research they are studying, identifying ways in which they might be sensationalised or taken out of context (ideal for socially sensitive areas of the spec in AS or A2).


One of the key findings of the study was that there has been a big increase in the amount of articles in the news reporting brain based research. Students could consider why this might be the case. They might consider the following:

  • the current dominance of neuroscience within science/Psychology
  • the greater availability of methods to measure brain activity, leading to a greater chance of news worthy findings
  • the possible influence of social changes on the popularity of neuroscience ideas in the public domain

I haven’t linked this to a specific area of the specification deliberately as it clearly is a subject/discipline wide concern and could be meaningfully addressed in relation to any topic area in either AS or A2.

Although there is no formal assessment within the exams for the individual how science works principles, in many A2 topics where there is a heavy biological slant to research the reporting of these and the misconceptions that arise from taking research out of context will be relevant, appropriate and credit worthy AO2/AO3.


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