Media and Public Frequently Exaggerate Significance of Behavioral Genetics Findings

Rob Wipond
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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)

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Rob Wipond
Rob Wipond is a Victoria, British Columbia-based freelance journalist who has been writing on mental health issues for fifteen years. His research has particularly focused on the interfaces between psychiatry, the justice system, and civil rights. His articles have been nominated for three Canadian National Magazine Awards, six Western Magazine Awards, and four Jack Webster Awards for journalism. He can be contacted through his website.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Ask your doctor why the media does this…

    “While the grand party in direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising may have peaked about 5 years ago, it remains an important method of marketing drugs. The industry last year spent $2.4 billion on television ads, according to Nielsen. That is a 23% drop from the $3.1 billion spent in 2007.”

    http://www.fiercepharma.com/special-reports/top-10-drug-advertising-spends-q1-2012

    $ 2,400,000,000.00 , wow that is alot of cash !

  2. Some people of every generation will use diagnoses, genealogical reasoning, biological reasoning, to tell that there’s this lower class of people. There’s one brilliant and little known book called From Genesis to Genocide (Chrorover), published in 1979, that deals with this issue. Some people are “inferior”, they have this “original sin”. It’s a recurring theme that will happen to the end of humanity. I don’t know if that a depressing idea to many of you.

    • Hermes,

      I haven’t read the book to which you’re referring, but my understanding of Christ’s teachings is that the “original sin” theory was trumped by Jesus’ “love your neighbor as yourself” theology. But I agree, the psychiatric industries’ beliefs are the opposite of Jesus’.

      • The concept of original sin as such was formulated and developed by people such as Augustine, Luther and so on. It’s not in Bible as such. The concept of original sin can be used as a tool of behaviour control, by telling people they have this deficiency by birth. They are “broken”, therefore they need to act certain way, be controlled by others, etc. Some people are very interested in proving that things such as “shizophrenia” or “bipolar” are single genetic diseases that are inherited from birth, and then telling other people about it. Likewise with all this IQ and race reasoning.

        • I guess my point, and it seems you agree, is those people’s theories have been known to be wrong for centuries. But psychiatrists, who continue to expouse belief in nonexistent “mental illness,” after nonexistent ” mental illness,” do seem to be the ones doing the same thing over and over again, and being incapable of learning.

          Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

  3. Hermes, OK, then, you are not stopped from letting your interests take you anywhere, and my guess is that managing symptoms and eliminating them whatever they maybe is at least a central focus. This certainly is true for me, although what I strictly train myself to notice about what obviously seem like cognitive deficits and not just lack of insight or emotional instability is what is the most scientific assumption about them. What can be proved, what can that proof mean, and what can happen to change something a little. I know it’s nothing like compliance, and nothing you find in the ethics-free zones of mental wards here.

    But it just can’t hurt to boost nutritional values, lower or blunt the worst of your pains by expressing yourself, or try feeling better by medicating yourself sensibly according to your own standards, rather than those of the industry’s. I should get better at each.

    Naturally, I believe it is practical and good and vital to learn relevant historicized perspectives like Foucault’s. It’seems very interesting to whenever survivors or careproviders like Joanna Moncrieff step up on this site to suggest how we can further our personal investigations into the real meaning of “treatment”.

    However, making the science go somewhere helpful for sufferers is rarely the motivation behind the studies and editorial decisions, or so it appears. So only believing in the most basic principles of self-help seems justified. Take responsibility, learn about your problems, don’t believe the hype, and especially look skepticaaly on the claims of inherent benevolence saturating the industry. You know the one…with its autocratic and self-congratulatory standards and policies. At least not here in America the medical and all locked up.

    Good luck there on tackling Discipline and Punish. You make a ton of sense when you say you feel the need to get right into doing this. The same types of realizations hit me all the time. The situation is urgent, very definitely, and constantly made urgent by the gap between stated goals and the ones behavioral healthcare actually pursues (and what they want understood about this difference). I repeat, I mean mostly here in what I know firsthand was almost many times free and willing to keep that way and now is wall to wall the land of credentials and backing when it comes to promoting change.