How Much Science Hype is Acceptable?

Discussing the subject of hype on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology a valid question was raised. Is technology hype justified and how much is acceptable?

The tech industry is great at hype. There is always plenty of hype surrounding the latest improvements from Siri to Apple Maps to the latest version of Microsoft Word, and it could be argued that hype drives the tech industry. Why would anyone need a smart fridge that tells you when your food goes off or a voice activated personal assistant that doesn’t understand what you are saying or what you want unless you believe that it might actually be useful for something? Perhaps its easier to hype a new feature than to hack into the code and fix some fundamental flaws?

Hype and marketing can be indistinguishable although and I always liked the distinction proposed a decade ago that “Hype is using a nuclear bomb to crack a nut, proper marketing is getting the nut kernel out using keyhole surgery.

Scientists hate hype almost as much some of them hate the entire human race, and have a rather different view. Plenty of people grumbled that nanotechnology was simply a rebranding of chemistry and nanotechnology was certainly overhyped with claims about trillion dollar markets.  But the same people who grumbled about it were quite happy to rebrand their own research projects “nanotechnology” and  accept the research grants generated by the bombastic and unrealizable predictions. Graphene is similarly overhyped and a recent Bloomberg article bemoaning the lack of applications is pretty much normal for this stage of development, even if the comparisons with aluminium are rather far fetched.

In a world of increasing distractions and shortening attention spans hype is something that we all have to live with. While some hype such as Apple’s recent mindfulness app is obvious, most non scientists don’t have enough specialist knowledge to be able to judge whether the latest scientific claim is hype or real, and universities and journals don’t help much. A scientist may say something like “Our findings represent a first step in treating hypopituitarism, but that does not mean the disease will be cured permanently within the near future, however, our work illustrates the promise of human pluripotent stem cells as it presents a direct path toward realizing the promise of regenerative medicine for certain hormonal disorders” which winds up in the popular press as “pigs to be used to grow human organs.” Similarly headlines such as “Graphene breakthrough could make chips a million times faster” often bury the crucial information that this is just a theoretical, not even a physical experiment towards the end of the article. In many cases university and journal press departments are to blame for over exaggerating the importance of the research.

The end result of scientific hype is that people believe either everything or nothing, while it gives plenty of ammunition to anyone seeking justification for cutting funding. “But you said that by 2015….”

So rather than calling for a ban on academic hype I have no real issue with leavening research findings with some responsible hype. By responsible I mean something that generates interests and which could conceivably be delivered given the right conditions. For fundamental research a paper in a high impact journal is reward enough for the academics who tend to be rather embarrassed about having to answer questions about by what date their invention will change the world and hype has no place here. But for more applied research, a smidgen of hyperbole is acceptable if it generates commercial interest or funding for further translational work.

Claims that anything is a “cure for cancer”or will revolutionise anything whatsoever fall firmly into the irresponsible and undeliverable hype category and should be clearly marked with “Yo, Terminator X.”

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