I never thought I would end up here. It’s different, it’s crowded, and all eyes are on me. I don’t really understand the rules, the language, the interest. Yet I am here. Almost everyone is here. I am too old for this. I am not trained for this. It is slightly uncomfortable, but it feels like the right thing to do. What other options are left? Nobody has access to the “real deal”, nobody understands anything out there, and it’s not always safe. Someone needs to do something, someone needs to be here, doing this. Whatever, I’ll dance if I have to.
One-point-eight million views, more than 75,000 likes, more than 56,000 shares and that’s on one social media platform alone. These are some of the statistics of a recent Instagram reel (a short video for all boomers reading this) of a TikToker using his account to explain to his viewers what brain organoids are, what they can do, and how creepy they are. And I wish that the content was true. Not even close!
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to be bitter, taking science out of the laboratory is important, it is one of the ways we as scientists give back to the community, to society. But there is nothing that grinds my gears (and not in a cool mechanical way) more than the spread of misinformation. Neuroscience research including brain organoids and neurotechnology such as brain-computer interface (BCI), serve as compelling examples of fields that succumb to hype and inadvertently contribute to misinformation.
Spread of misinformation in the form of non-scientific claims, exaggerated claims, or even oversimplified claims and definitions is associated with more harm than good[1, 2]. The worst part is that misinformation is spreading faster and reaching significantly bigger crowds through social media platforms (for example the 1.8 million viewers) compared to any scientific publication. And the COVID-19 pandemic was the perfect example to showcase the dark side of spreading misinformation. Misinformation surrounding COVID-19 spread rapidly through social media channels, making it difficult for people to distinguish between accurate information and false rumours[4, 5]. This was even aided by algorithms that prioritize sensational or controversial content, regardless of its accuracy or reliability. When it comes to brain organoids, misinformation might lead to several unintended consequences, such as contributing to false hope, and undermining public distrust in this area of research.
Science-fiction or facts?
In the context of brain organoids, there are two ways one could approach communicating about this technology. Starting with a science-fiction exaggerated definition: “Scientists are growing mini-brains in the laboratory; this Frankenstein creation has two eyes and is even showing signs of intelligence and sentience.” Moving towards an evidence-based and scientific approach would sound more like this: “Brain organoids are three- dimensional structures derived from stem cells that self-organize and differentiate into different neural subtypes, mimicking in some ways certain aspects of the human brain. Some experts believe this research carries ethical challenges”.
I hope you appreciate the contrast I am trying to highlight here. And yes, I do realize that the second sentence is boring, but we should not sacrifice scientific accuracy for the purpose of entertainment and hype. That being said, the challenge lies in striking a balance between crafting captivating headlines while staying firmly rooted in scientific evidence.
Science-fiction can be very beneficial and could even be used to discuss ethical issues relating to emerging scientific research and breakthroughs. Think of the 1997 movie GATTACA by Andrew Niccol and how genetic sequencing at the time had little significance while now it is considered more relevant than ever. Science-fiction is helpful, but it is not where we should seek information on scientific research and findings.
So, let’s not confuse science-facts with science-fiction!
Do not worry, you are not entirely to blame here. The media and more recently influencers, strive and make profit on click-bait and sensational headlines. The truth is most times, the media sounds more like science-fiction reporters than science communicators, which has me thinking: Should we consider implementing science-fiction disclaimers in all sorts of online communications?
While we can’t magically make the landscape media more truthful, I can certainly provide you with some guidance on navigating the murky waters between factual science
reporting and sensationalized nonsense. So here is a crash course. The first thing you want to avoid is the title of an article. While this may seem counterintuitive, a big proportion of media headlines are not only misleading, but studies have shown that misleading headlines could negatively influence a reader’s ability to accurately remember the content of an article. Moreover, neuroscience is a fascinating field, the brain being its central focus, one could only imagine the different scenarios that emerging neurotechnologies could present. However, like the old saying “Take everything with a grain of salt”, don’t take everything you hear as the holly truth and definitely not from influencers. There are great scientists that are successful and responsible science communicators, learn from them! Follow them! Finally, think twice before clicking that share button, you don’t want to be a catalyst in spreading misinformation. Keep a critical mind, your digital behaviour included.
So here I am, dancing to the trendiest songs and dances on TikTok, while subtly infusing these videos with factual accuracy and ethics, to grasp your attention, to get you thinking, to get you critical. So next time you are scrolling on social media, if you see me dancing, don’t judge my poor dancing skills, just join the conversation!