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2020 Convocation Speaker David Ottenheimer on Science and Miscommunication

David in his graduation attire

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today. It’s a unique honor to be able to virtually address the School of Medicine graduates as we all watch from our homes. We’re graduating during a time when the public’s interest in biomedical science is unusually high, so I thought I’d share my perspective on interactions between science and the broader community.

In many ways, our research depends on public support for science, but this public attention sometimes comes with unfortunate side effects. One of these is the all-too-often misrepresentation of scientific results we see in the media. Although incorrect scientific reporting can be dangerous at its worst, today I’m going to share one of my experiences that veers more toward the comical.

It all started when I published my first paper during my Ph.D. To summarize my work briefly: by giving different tasty rewards to rats and recording from their brains, I found that the majority of cells in an understudied brain region, the ventral pallidum, are very active for preferred foods and less active for less preferred foods. This means ventral pallidum could be a good region to study to understand how we make food choices.

Watch David's Speech

I believe I speak for many of us when I say that one of the reasons we pursue a Ph.D. is that we hope our work will one day improve public health. For this reason, when I was given the opportunity to have Johns Hopkins marketing and communications publish a press release on my first paper, I enthusiastically accepted. When my paper came out, I was delighted to see that a few news sources picked up the story on my research. Most of them just copy and pasted the Hopkins press release, though, and none of them asked me for quotes.

A few days later, I received my first interview request... It was not at all what I was expecting. It came from a producer of a late night radio show in the UK asking me to “chat on air about the brain and why we choose sausage rolls.” Sausage rolls?? I was so confused. I sent a note to my Ph.D. advisor asking for advice. She suggested that I try googling my name to see what came up.

What followed was the most baffling, disheartening, and hilarious autopsy of science communication gone wrong. In the press release, we used a buffet of foods like mac and cheese and mashed potatoes to describe a scenario where your brain needs to evaluate different food options. In the UK, where neither of these foods are common, they changed the example to a local favorite: sausage rolls. This led to a series of wackier and wackier headlines, that included:

  • “Scientists say we can blame bad eating habits on our brain getting ‘turned on’ by sausage rolls”
  • “Blame sausage rolls for bad eating habits because they ‘turn people on’ and ‘dominate brains,’ scientists say”
  • And, my favorite: “We all have a ‘sausage roll gene’ that helps us choose what food to eat.” -- YES A SAUSAGE ROLL GENE -- 

How did this all happen? I went back to the original press release and began to see what went wrong. I talked about a dominant neural signal, about neurons having increased firing for preferred rewards, and a high level of activity in ventral pallidum. It wasn’t hard for the news outlets to jump from those descriptions to foods dominating your brain, firing you up, and turning you on.

I think the moral of the story is that public knowledge of scientific concepts is often quite minimal, and the people disseminating new knowledge are often more interested in making an exciting story than properly representing the data. This is something we’re seeing currently as pilot studies and pseudoscience alike are rushed out by the media to people anxiously awaiting developments on COVID-19.

This is one area where all of us graduating scientists can help out. Regardless of where our careers take us, we must all be ambassadors for science, explaining the scientific process to those around us and pointing out misconceptions where we see them. If we can all help make science a little more understandable, we will be doing a whole lot of good--both for the scientific endeavor and for society.

I want to finish by congratulating all of today’s graduates! I am so proud of all the work you have done and to be standing here with you virtually today. Oh, and since this is pre-recorded, current David-- the speech is over now so you can now stop cringing while watching a video of yourself. And go ahead and treat yourself to a sausage roll -- you’ve earned it.

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