April 25, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Hype, honesty and trust

This week I am participating in a workshop on ‘Sociologies of Moderation: Problems of democracy, expertise and the media’* organised by Dr Alexander Smith at the University of Huddersfield. The workshop will scrutinise the meaning of ‘moderation’, mainly from a political perspective. My contribution strays somewhat away from that core political meaning, as it deals with the seeming impossibility of moderation in an age of hype, not in the context of politics (although politics is an important ingredient in this context), but in the context of doing science (and that means natural and social) in modern academia.

I am arguing that in an age of severe competition for funding and a race to gain ‘impact’ (in the broadest sense) as well as students, hyping research in various ways (in funding proposals, press releases, websites, interviews with journalists etc.) is almost inevitable, despite the fact that the ethos of science is to provide honest and truthful information about the process and products of science (and the ethos of science journalism is to provide fair and accurate stories about this process and these products).

The hype scale

Issues around hype are directly linked to issues around trust. The general fear is that scientific and/or media hype may lead to a loss of public trust in science. However, it is not entirely clear what the link is between hype and public trust, as everything depends on how you define ‘hype’, ‘public’, and ‘trust’. This makes empirical studies of this putative link extremely challenging. There are however proposals for such investigations. One such proposal has recently been put forward by Zubin Master and David Resnik in an article on ‘Hype and public trust in science’.

As Master and Resnik point out, The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English (1999) defines hype as “promo[ting] (a product) with extravagant publicity”. But when does extravagant publicity become fraud or deception (and when do we recognise something as one or the other; hindsight is unfortunately not always an option)?

Scientists and journalists (in the widest sense) always have to say something about the future when reporting on present-day scientific discoveries. What promises for the future does a drug or other technology hold? When will it become available? What social or bodily ailments will it cure and when? What social impact will it have? How will the general public perceive its risks or benefits? According to Master and Resnik, there is a spectrum of possibilities along which such future talk can occur, “with one end having publicity that is fully fact based with little prediction of scientific futures outside the known facts, to the opposite end where there are inaccurate predictions or complete exaggerations without any insight or factual support”. As the discourse moves along that scale, it becomes more and more hyped (intermediate stages are: ‘strong evidenced-based predictions’, ‘accurate/sensible portrayal’ and ‘inaccurate prediction’).

The hyperbole scale

I claim that there is another scale that cuts across the hype scale proposed by Master and Resnik, and that is a scale related to story-telling or narrative rather than to ‘facts’ and ‘futures’.  Stories about science are stories. They are told in order to be read (not like scientific articles which seem, increasingly, to be written in order to be published rather than read; see Jack Stilgoe, tweet, 19 April). In newspapers, science stories are told to attract, engage, and, not to forget, entertain readers. In funding proposals they are told to attract money. Sometimes they are told in order to do all those things.

Tim Radford, free lance journalist and science writer, has made it clear that it is impossible to tell a science story without engaging in some sort of ‘hype’. “The act of writing about something – to choose one topic from the hundred or so potential topics delivered every day in the scientific press – is to hype it. I have chosen this finding rather than that, or the other, so it must be more important, more compelling, more exciting. I select, therefore I hype. The more interesting question is: does this act of inevitable hyperbole represent some kind of unconscious dishonesty or unthinking error on my part? Or would it be an even bigger error if I didn’t mention it, missed the story, failed to pitch it to the news desk?” This is what I call honest hype, a sort of hype that both scientists and science writers routinely and inevitably engage in. And once they have hyped in the sense of selected a story, they can then tell it using rhetorical tools that range on a scale from apt metaphors to rampant hyperbole. But one has to ask again: When and how do we recognise something as one or the other? Julian Savulescu, for example, exhorted Times Higher Education readers last week to “Master the new loom before life’s tapestry unravels at our hands” (headline, so possibly written by the copy editor) and that “synthetic biology offers the prospect of annihilating life as we know it” (his own words).

As Radford points out, after confessing to using lurid metaphors (‘magic table cloth’) when first reporting on stem cell research: “You don’t grab headlines by describing embryo stem cell research as an expensive laboratory-based technology of unproven merit guaranteed to lead to many years of frustration punctuated by small flashes of enlightenment.”

Crossing the hype and hyperbole thresholds

The question is: Are scientists increasingly forced to creep up on and sometimes cross over what one might call the hype/dishonesty threshold (on the Master and Resnik scale) and the rampant hyperbole threshold (on the narrative scale) in order to gain funding and achieve ‘impact’ in an academic world ruled more and more by commercialisation (and medialisation), that is, where the telling of the story and/or reporting of the facts are linked to selling a project, a university, a vision of the future? Is it true to say, with Saguy and Almeling, that “…scientists work as ‘para-journalists’ […], writing up their studies—especially the abstract—with journalists in mind. They then frame their research via press releases and interviews with journalists. A reward structure in which, all things being equal, alarmist studies are more likely to be covered in the media”– and for ‘alarmist’ say ‘hyped’ (and for ‘covered in the media’ say ‘funded by research councils’?).

This is the danger posed by what Peter Weingart called many years ago ‘discursive overbidding’. The problem is, do we lose public trust in science in the process? Or is the gaining of public trust also increasingly dependent on ‘extravagant publicity’? I join Master and Resnik in their call for more empirical work on these issues. This will be difficult, but it is certainly necessary in order to keep track of where science and society are going in a world where moderation no longer seems to be an option.

Added 5 August, 2013 – on negotiating the line between promotion and hype, article by Monika Maleszewska

Added, 10 December, 2014 – and here is an empirical study!! http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7015

Added, 4 October 2019– nice article on responsible communication in biomedical research here

Posted in HypeTrust