The Link? "Going Broad" with Darwinius masillae



Fronting the NY Times today is a preview of a bold new strategy for engaging hard to reach audiences on science. As the NY Times describes, today's media event that unveils the fossilized remains of the monkey like creature Darwinius masillae features a unique collaboration between the History Channel, the open-access journal PLoS One, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Along with today's publication at PLoS and the media unveiling at AMNH, there will be a two hour documentary on Monday at the History Channel, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News to appear on Good Morning America, Nightline, and World News, and a high end multi-media Web site. In addition, publisher Little, Brown plans to ship 110,000 copies of a book on the find titled simply The Link. The History Channel says it paid a record price for the two-hour documentary, which will subsequently also air on BBC and the German broadcaster ZDF.

Today's event--a publicity tsunami relative to traditional science communication practices--is part of what my co-author Dietram Scheufele and I call in a paper under review "going broad" with public engagement. It's a strategy that's necessary in today's fragmented media world and one used across other sectors of society and commerce. ""Any pop band is doing the same thing," Jorn H. Hurum, the lead scientist on the Darwinius masillae project tells the NY Times. "Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science."

Below the fold is how we describe this emerging "going broad" trend in the section of the paper that recommends several bold new innovations in science communication.

My chief concern about today's announcement is that it might extend into hype, a reservaton also noted in the NY Times article. The careful balance between innovation in public engagement and the avoidance of hype is something that we also address in the working paper. In particular, when this type of "going broad" strategy is applied around a single discovery or finding rather than a broader scientific subject or body of research, the probability of hype is deeply magnified. More on that later. But for now, go below the fold for our description of the "going broad" strategy.



"Going broad:" Beyond elite audiences. As mentioned earlier, some critics argue that it would be unethical to take advantage of strategic communication tools in order to make scientific issues more relevant and accessible to a general public. But recent data on potentially widening knowledge gaps suggests that it may be unethical if we did not use all communication tools at our disposal in order to connect with hard-to-reach audiences (Scheufele & Brossard, 2008).

Many traditional approaches to public communication about science, for instance, have inadvertently favored elite audiences. In fact, some previous attempts to connect across diverse sections of the public have resulted in widening gaps between the already information rich and the information poor. This is partly due to the likelihood of exposure. Almost 40% of college-educated respondents, for instance, visited a science or technology museum in 2006, compared to less than 10 percent for respondents with a high school education or less (National Science Board, 2008).

As a result, museum exhibits, science Web sites, traditional science documentaries, and similar outreach efforts may inherently favor elite audiences. Widening gaps between the information rich and information poor are also a function of the way issues like nanotechnology and biotechnology play out in public discourse. In their research on "knowledge gaps," Phil Tichenor and his colleagues (1970) found that audiences with high socioeconomic status (SES) showed much stronger learning effects from health related information than low-SES audiences. This effect is in part due to the fact that TV shows like PBS' NOVA or the Science section of the New York Times tailor their content to highly educated audiences. As a result, learning effects for mass audiences are minimal, even if these audiences happen to tune in to NOVA or read an article in the New York Times.

What are needed then are media strategies for "going broad" with science-related content, generating attention and interest among non-elite audiences. Surveys, for example, show that local television news remains among the dominant sources of public affairs-related information for the American public (Pew 2008b). Therefore, in order to reach non-traditional audiences, scientists and their organizations need to be on local television news. To do so, major national communication efforts should be closely coordinated across local media markets, with specific scientists, institutions, or organizations serving as the local angle and spokespeople. An alternative model is the example of Climate Central, a non-profit partnership between journalists and scientists who produce climate science stories for syndication at local television outlets across the U.S. (Brainard, 2008).

New documentary genres and storytelling techniques are also an important mechanism for going broad. Surveys in the U.S. show that programming at the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Learning Channel constitutes the largest and most diverse audience for science-related content. More than 40% of respondents across educational levels, gender, age, religious background, and ideological orientation say that they "regularly" view these channels. In comparison, 10% or less of respondents across these groups regularly watch PBS NOVA or subscribe to Scientific American, Discover, Nature, or Science magazines (Pew 2006). Specific to the environment, the box office success and media visibility in the U.S. for the 2009 major motion picture release of Earth, a theatrical version of a series that originally aired on the BBC and Discovery Channel, is further evidence of the wider appeal of these new documentary genres.

A recent National Academies (2008) project that pairs scientists as consultants on major motion pictures and television series is also a step in the direction of going broad and reaching new audiences. In similar fashion, an initiative led by physicists used the 2009 major motion picture release of Angels & Demons as a way to capitalize on the summer blockbuster's focus on particle accelerators and anti-matter. The project organized local lectures in 45 locations across the U.S. and Canada and launched an educational Web site "Angels & Demons: The Science Revealed."

Long used as a strategy for engaging the public on public health issues (Kaiser,2004; Montgomery, 2007), active involvement with Hollywood in the construction of messages about science can lead to a range of outcomes including informal learning, enhanced interest and attention to science in news coverage and other media, the modeling of positive behavior related to environmental sustainability or energy use, the favorable framing of controversial issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools, or even a spike in news or policy attention to a scientific topic such as climate change. Web platforms such as the Angels & Demons site facilitate incidental exposure to science among individuals using search engines to find more information about the film.

Other important media outlets for expanding audience reach include comedy news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Studies have documented the ability of these programs to engage younger, harder to reach audiences about political candidates and election campaigns, shaping their political attitudes and levels of political knowledge (Feldman, 2007; Feldman & Goldthwaite-Young, 2008). On science, a recent Pew (2008c) analysis finds that The Daily Show includes comparatively more attention to science and technology topics than the mainstream press and significantly more attention to climate change. These programs also generate buzz online with heavily-trafficked and forwarded clips on hot-button science topics such as evolution, genetics, climate change, or stem cell research. Additionally, both shows frequently feature scientists and science authors as interview guests, for example Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene.

Given that satire and comedic news are increasingly preferred media formats for younger audiences, more research is needed on the potential for using this style of humor as a tool for public engagement on science. Little is known, for example, about the comparative effects of science information communicated in satirical form compared with the same information communicated in traditional science media. Greater understanding in this area would inform not just media strategy but also the incorporation of humor and satire into the production of documentary film, Web, and museum content.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

U.S. reacts to New Zealand's gun ban

On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
  • Others note the inherent differences between the two nations, arguing that it is a good thing that it is relatively hard to pass such legislation in such a short timeframe.
  • The ban will surely shape future conversations about gun control in the U.S.
Keep reading Show less