November 1, 2010

The boy who cried "You can now see for the first time!"

In the piece, an "expert" is quoted as saying:
"You can now see for the first time the spaghetti-like structures and their connections."
You can now see for the first time?

Well. Don't take our word that the visualization of brain white-matter pathways from diffusion tensor imaging data has been going on for more than a decade. Take google's:

"For the first time", indeed. So, who is hurt by such puffery? A short list would include:
  • Other workers in the field, whose contributions are slighted.
  • The general public, who are misled.
  • Students – potential future scientists! – who become disenchanted upon discovering the gap between what-is-"reported" and what-is-true.
Our point here is not to criticize the person who was quoted; we do not know whether they were quoted accurately. Our point is that science reporting should be done without needlessly embellishing the originality or significance of any particular contribution – out of respect for readers, researchers, and the common good. Because otherwise, science reporting risks losing its credibility, and "even when liars tell the truth, they are never believed."

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