Now that I’ve got your attention with my headline, I can get into today’s topic: headlines. Or more specifically, why it’s so hard to write good headlines for articles on neuroscience.
I started thinking about this after spotting a recent CNN article about optogenetics and controlling individual neurons, rather forebodingly called “How to ‘take over’ a brain.” Even with quotes around “take over,” that headline jars. The article itself is not quite so sensationalized. It mostly just explains how pulses of light can be used to influence the activity of genetically engineered neurons, a technique that has already proven to be a useful research tool in psychiatry and neuroscience. But if someone glances over the headline — the way most of us read news online — she could easily register some incorrect, SciFi-worthy implications: “Scientists can take over brains?? Yikes. Should I tinfoil my head when I’m near neuro labs?”
This misleading brain headline is one among many, all embedded in the brain porn issue I’ve mentioned in past posts. Brain porn often oversimplifies points in a play for attention. That means headlines like “The End of Evil? Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing,” or subheads like “Why Psychologists Reject Science” (a truly odd choice, given that the article in question describes divides within the field of psychology). Other headlines have more insidious problems, like anything on the theme of: “The Science of [Insert Interesting Phenomenon like Cheating or Morality Here].” Aside from seeming a bit lazy, “the science of” labels can imply a definitive science behind the phenomenon which probably does not exist.
The main argument for dramatic or glib headlines is one of lesser evils: sure, they can be deceptive, but at least they get people reading. In today’s media, a million things compete for your attention every moment, especially online. Articles have to sell themselves. This is true for most journalism, but it’s pronounced for writings on science, what with science being a fundamentally unsexy topic. So it’s understandable when editors want to exaggerate the sexier sides of neuroscience with notions like mind-control and the death of evil. As long as the articles themselves are sound, you could view “bad science” headlines as dressing up what may been viewed as lame academia, as the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
The problem with that? It doesn’t seem necessary. Plenty of good headlines build intrigue without suggesting something untrue. The Atlantic, for example, titled an article about using neuroscience in courtrooms “The Brain on Trial.” That kind of headline avoids concrete claims and so is not misleading. At the same time, it invokes an image that I suspect made plenty of readers curious enough to click on the piece.
Of course, I don’t have hard stats on page views. And some stories are always going to be tougher to title than others. But I can’t think of a reason we shouldn’t rise to those occasions by, well, trying harder. Better headlines are among my goals this year, and I’ll want feedback. If my page views go down, I’ll just have to start titling every post “Neuroscience Discovers the Secret Meaning of Everything.”