I am occasionally reminded that “news” outlets these days are more in the business of drawing viewers than of actually reporting accurate news. This is especially dangerous in the area of science — journalists are not often trained scientists and it sometimes occurs that a journalist, in reading an article and trying to pull an eye-catching headline out of it, draws an incomplete or erroneous conclusion from the research and then publishes a “news” article about that conclusion. Thousands of people read the erroneous headline, never look at the source publication, and pick up, however subliminally, the mistaken message.
Today in my Facebook feed I found these two competing headlines:
The first headline says that our brains react similarly when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that the same mechanisms may influence our relationships with both. The second headline states that our brains react differently when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that different mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.
I was somewhat appalled to find that both articles refer to the exact same study, which actually supports both conclusions. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the brains of 16 women (14 actually completed the entire study) via MRI while they viewed photographs of their children and their dog, as well as photographs of unfamiliar children and dogs, then compared the women’s reactions to each. The abstract ends with the following sentence: “Although there are similarities in the perceived emotional experience and brain function associated with the mother-child and mother-dog bond, there are also key differences that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships.”
So, based on this extremely small (only 14 subjects!) and preliminary study (the official press release indicates that the researchers themselves suggest further research with a larger sample), one can conclude that, well, we use the same bits of our brain to evaluate our relationships with both our pets and our children, but these bits respond differently to pets than they do to children. Both of our headlines could be true. Who knows? This tiny study is only “contribut[ing] to answering this complex question“.
The lesson here? Always read the source material, and never assume that any single “news” headline is telling you the entire story. (In defense of both journalists in this instance, the accompanying articles were both much more neutral in tone than the headlines, and both provided reference to either the official press release or the original article.)