Other studies have shown that abstracts and press releases often mislead journalists about the significance of findings in behavioral genetics; but a new study published in BioScience found that news media consumers in turn regularly extrapolate and exaggerate based on what they read in the resulting news stories.
“Among other things, we wanted to know if the public understood (or misunderstood) popular science articles about a new research field, genopolitics, and whether this popularization indeed helped people have an informed opinion on human genetics,” University of Montreal PhD student and study author Alexandre Morin-Chassé said in a press release.
Morin-Chassé gave 1413 Americans three different articles to read, and then asked them questions about what they’d read.
“The conclusions were troubling, to say the least,” stated the press release. “Morin-Chassé observed that after reading an article published in the British Daily Telegraph in October 2010 about a ‘gene responsible for liberal ideas,’ the readers tended to generalize the influence of genetics to other behaviours or social orientations of which there was no mention in the news article (including sexual orientation and intelligence). The same phenomenon was observed among the readers of the other article, originally published in the Scientific American MIND magazine in June 2010, which associated a gene with susceptibility to debt.”
Morin-Chassé did ascribe some blame to news media, noting that “some news is purposely written in a manner intended to catch the public’s attention with startling results.”
“The danger, which, in my mind, is present,” said Morin-Chassé, “is that scientific research findings could be manipulated for ideological purposes by certain social groups.”
Current Practices in Reporting on Behavioural Genetics Can Mislead the Public (Universite de Montreal press release on Newswise, December 15, 2014)
(Abstract) Public (Mis)understanding of News about Behavioral Genetics Research: A Survey Experiment (Morin-Chassé, Alexandre. BioScience. December 2014. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu168)