When I ask my students whether it is okay for them or others to overstate the possible outcomes of their research in order to get funding, a large number of them say they are comfortable with it. They are taught by their mentors that this is a necessary, if sometimes unfortunate, marketing technique. The public doesn’t understand the complexities of the scientific process, they argue, so it would not be useful to say that their work might make a small step toward better understanding component X of pathway Y which some believe could help locate the trigger for pancreatic cancer. Instead, it’s easier to simply say that their work will be an important step toward curing cancer. Overstating the social, environmental, and health benefits of research is a widely accepted practice in the scientific community.
Now I don’t want to beat up on hope too much in this column. Hope is a wonderful thing. We face extensive problems in this world and without hope we may not be able to muster the strength to overcome. And hope is not always misplaced. We have accomplished numerous things that seemed impossible, but were made possible because enough people didn’t give up hope – and scientists have been shining examples of such individuals. But while hope in general is good, deliberately generating false hope is dangerous.
I also don’t want to go into a detailed argument about how overhyping research is unethical. Most moral theories clearly state that lying is wrong in most cases. But while many scientists firmly believe this, they still persist often on a basis of two intertwined arguments: 1. ‘Everyone else is doing it, so I also have to.’ And 2. ‘In the end it is an innocent sin because no one really gets hurt.’
My concern with this line of argument is that in the short term it works very well, but it may amount to building a house of cards that could come tumbling down. Scientists are afforded extra latitude in our society because of the immense amount of trust the American public has in them. I know there is common sentiment among scientists that they are undervalued. But simply look at any public poll from the last fifty years which asks who people trust most and scientists are always near or at the top. The extensive public funding of science is further evidence of this trust. When scientists hype their work I worry that they put this trust in jeopardy. What happens if the public more carefully compares the promises made by scientists with the results they have generated?
Let me give one possible example that might offer some lessons. From the 1960s through the 1980s there was significant public support for manned spaceflight. In part it was because of the shared spirit of exploration (and one-upmanship) but it was also because of the belief, promoted by NASA, that money invested in manned spaceflight would generate products that would benefit all. Those public benefits have yet to be realized, or at least are not apparent to the public. Many have successfully argued that Velcro, Tang and astronaut ice cream were simply not worth the cost. What was once a national (if not international) scientific obsession with manned spaceflight has receded from the public consciousness. As the interest has ebbed, so has the vast amount of funding that citizens (and their representatives) are willing to invest. We love our GPS and satellite communications, but the public has realized that it doesn’t need to pay to put people in space to get them. This is not a perfect example, but it is evidence that there can be negative repercussions if the public believes the contract it has with science is broken.
Scientists frequently argue that if only more people understood science, they would wholeheartedly support it. But through hype, scientists are promoting a dangerous misunderstanding of science. If scientists truly want a public educated in science, they can’t blame reporters who distort technical details to make sense of complexity or high school teachers who are working overtime to teach overcrowded classrooms. They have to start with themselves and make sure that the image of science they offer is accurate. The contract science has with the public is precious and should be reinforced with honesty.
The real struggle is that the problem is endemic to science in the United States. Single scientists taking a stand to not overhype their work may in fact suffer from doing the right thing. To handle this problem most appropriately there needs to be leadership from the top. Professional societies, the National Academies and funding agencies need to put out the word that all scientists will benefit from painting more realistic pictures of what they can accomplish. If not, I worry about what will happen when the public grows weary of the hype.
the Author: Jameson Wetmore is
professor with CSPO and CNS-ASU, and ASU’s School of Human Evolution &