Bad riot neuroscience: cite the power

The Guardian Notes and Theories blog has a fantastic article on media science distortion by brain researchers whose study got falsely reported as showing a link between rioting and ‘low levels of a brain chemical’.

The actual study, which you can read online as a pdf, did not mention rioting and did not investigate it, but it got widely spun as giving an explanation for the recent looting in the UK based on the function of a neurotransmitter.

…we found that people who had lower levels of GABA in a part of their frontal lobe also reported higher “rash impulsivity”. People who score higher on rash impulsivity tend to act more rashly in response to strong emotions or urges. Our results tallied with recent genetic findings that linked GABA to alcoholism and drug abuse: disorders in which high rash impulsivity is a common feature. We wrote up our study for publication in a scientific journal and, as standard, we were encouraged by our university to issue a press release.

As the riots unfolded, news stories based on our research began appearing. On Tueday 9 August, a newswire story by the Press Association announced that “Brain chemical lack ‘spurs rioting'”, with ‘spurs rioting’ printed mischievously in quote marks, falsely implying these were our words. In a further creative leap, The Sun heralded a “Nose spray to stop drunks and brawls”, and that a “cure could be developed in the next ten years”.

The researchers reflect on how the media handles neuroscience and the hidden assumptions on the role of our brain in behaviour that pervade press reporting

In parts it’s a lament, in parts a media critique, and definitely worth reading in full.

Link to article ‘Riot control’.

3 thoughts on “Bad riot neuroscience: cite the power”

  1. Great post, i think the rioting wasn’t a result of brain chemicals but because the people were bad by nature. They have a habit of doing bad things and there is nothing wrong with their brains.

  2. “The reason why some men are more impulsive, act aggressively, drink and take drugs could lie in the fact that they have lower levels of a naturally occurring substance in a specific part of their brain, University research has uncovered.”

    That’s the press release from Cardiff Uni for a paper with two studies (N=12 and N=13) of Cardiff University subjects filling out questionnaires and doing a bunch of cognitive tests.

    It’s a really interesting study and article, but before getting so outraged at misinterpretation and exaggeration in the media, I think the researchers should look closer to home.

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