Male birds-of-paradise use everything imaginable to charm their intended audience – a potential mate. Iridescent plumage bathed in sunlight, hypnotic dance moves and altering their surroundings all help them stand out amongst a dark overly crowded jungle. Could you imagine their success rates if they could master electricity and neon lighting?
Humans, too, do what they can to capture and charm their intended audience. Consider mass media and social media in an overly crowded media jungle. Captivating headlines, outrageous statements, evocative imagery, claims made by celebrities swirl and twirl around us begging us to read further, to “like” it, to share it, to click on an associated ad, and – the end game – to buy something.
No area of human endeavor is immune, not even science. As funding started getting tougher to attract and publishing in high-impact journals got more incentivized, writers changed their writing style to make their research more attractive to readers and stand out from amongst the crowd. The use of positive wording (e.g., “groundbreaking,” “unprecedented,” “innovative,” “novel,” “encouraging,” etc.) has increased over 880% in the last few decades (Vinkers, Tijdink, & Otte, 2015; Belluz, Plumer, &Resnick, 2016). And this has happened in parallel with the rise of genomics.
Timothy Caulfield recently documented this genomics-of-paradise dance in exquisite detail (Caulfield, 2018). Before the actual start of the Human Genome Project, the idea that it would be a “revolution” in medicine started permeating into the minds of people. The growing plumage of revolutionary promise helped secure the huge influx of cash needed to support such an endeavor. But the necessity to express enthusiasm and passion to help excite others about research can go too far. And, as Caulfield notes, many of the early genomics proponents crossed that line.
First, promises were made around the potential and imminence of successful gene therapy to fix genomic “problems.” When that promise remained just a promise after many years, the promises moved more to the development of actionable health insights from the genetic code, even to the point of “personalized” medicine. For a few individuals with highly penetrant, single allele diseases this promise was at least partially kept. But the general public has not seen the return on this huge investment in their lives yet.
Why do these promises remain elusive for the vast majority of people? The answer is quite simple. The more we learn about genomics, the more mind-bogglingly complex it is. We are finding that our understanding of genomics is but a drop in the ocean. For any given common trait, we are learning that it results from a jungle of genes instead of a single gene tree. This kind of complexity and uncertainty does not lend itself to the attractive sound bite or visual spectacle.
So, what is wrong with a little hype? Well, the sad truth is that even if a statement is completely ludicrous, people will start believing it if they hear it enough times (Caulfield, 2018) or hear celebrities saying it, which may even result in serious medical harm. Also, investors could lose their investments: A recent study highlighted just how many gullible investors throw their money at healthcare start-ups that have a paltry publication record and limited transparency about their technology (Cristea, Cahan, & Ioannidis, 2019).
It is true that hype will always be with us. People will always flock to it, even if its siren-like promises never come to fruition. But we cannot let it win. We have to look beyond hype-notic dance and scrutinize carefully what is being claimed in the context of real information and data. If a technology or piece of information is really going to revolutionize our health, its creators ought to make it a priority to showcase the reasons it will do so (e.g., the published peer-reviewed literature) and not just hide the issues behind the showy promise of misleading hype.
Belluz, J., Plumer, B., and Resnick, B. (2016, September 7) The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists. Vox. Retrieved on March 1, 2019 from https://www.vox.com/2016/7/14/12016710/science-challeges-research-funding-peer-review-process.
Caulfield, T. (2018). Spinning the Genome: Why Science Hype Matters. Perspect Biol Med, 61(4), 560-571. doi:10.1353/pbm.2018.0065
Cristea, I. A., Cahan, E. M., & Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2019). Stealth research: Lack of peer-reviewed evidence from healthcare unicorns. Eur J Clin Invest, e13072. doi:10.1111/eci.13072
Vinkers, C. H., Tijdink, J. K., & Otte, W. M. (2015). Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis. BMJ, 351, h6467. doi:10.1136/bmj.h6467