A new trend in scientists communicating with “the public” is to take information we scientists have known for decades and declare it some new found path-breaking insight. Along with this shameless repackaging comes the breathless quote “who knew that_____?” The blank is then filled with, what should be embarrassing, banality. Genetics is complicated; cancer is a heterogeneous disease; peanuts, fat, eggs, and so on are not that bad for you. My new favorite is the way neuroscientists have discovered the brains white matter as though it was some uncharted continent. Who knew white matter matters? We all knew. Everyone in neuroscience has always known. Studies on the importance of white matter and the non-neuron cells in the Nervous System, (Astrocytes, Oligodendrocytes, microglia, and so on) have occupied prominent neuroscientists for decades. We have also known that white matter is critical for normal brain function and that white matter disorders underlie a number of devastating neurological diseases for a very long time.
SO what is it that drives scientists to make these claims about the importance of white matter as though it collectively came to us in a dream last week? I do not know. But I think it is part of what is undermining the credibility of science. It is impossible to describe a wondrous new discovery in a news story that then refers back to work done in the 60s and 70s.
Disease advocates and funders should push back on this disingenuous manipulation whereby scientists mislead the public into thinking that progress is being made by re-branding yesterday’s findings as today’s big breakthrough. I do not care what is motivating this behavior. It is simply wrong.