University of Alberta Faculty of Law Professor Timothy Caulfield Takes Aim at Science Hype

International task force of experts in stem cell science, clinical research, and bioethics release guidelines to help stop the spread of science hype.

Law Communications - 17 May 2016

Every day we are bombarded by hyperbole - from our conversational language ("I love *insert product here*"), to our advertisements ("*insert product here* will miraculously reverse the signs of aging") - but according to a group of international experts in stem cell science, clinical research, and bioethics, hard science is no stranger to hype, and the scientific community behaves no differently than the rest of us.

"Science hype" is a phenomenon that occurs when scientific studies - especially when early results seem to suggest a promising medical treatment - are exaggerated and presented to the public as a fait accompli. The dangers of science hype are far-reaching, and include the marketing of unproven therapies, research funding being channeled ill-advisedly, misinformed health policy debates, and an impact on clinical decision making. That's why a task force of experts from the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), including University of Alberta Faculty of Law Professor Timothy Caulfield, have co-authored a series of guidelines to help stem cell researchers recognize and tackle the issue of science hype, which has resulted in an overly optimistic picture of stem cells in the media as a sort of "miracle cure". (Research conducted at the Faculty's Health Law Institute suggests that news articles about stem cell research often contain unrealistic expectations about how quickly research can translate into treatments that work.) The guidelines seek to raise awareness of science hype in the scientific community and set out a road map for how the community can tackle the problem.

Caulfield and his colleagues advocate that researchers and research institutions, academic journals, funding entities, patient advocacy groups, industry partners, and the media work together to fight science hype. The guidelines urge researchers to resist hyping a particular research or treatment, and to correct errors and exaggerations in the public record - using social media, as an example - when they are spotted. The guidelines also argue that researchers have a responsibility to accurately communicate scientific information to the public and to represent science in a balanced manner.

In addition to his work on the task force, Professor Caulfield has co-authored an article for Science on the dangers of hyping scientific research and published an op-ed in the Globe and Mail arguing that when science is hyped, true discoveries are diminished. Complementary articles relating to the release of the ISSCR guidelines have also been published in The Lancet, Nature, and Stem Cell Reports.

Visit the In the Media section of our website for a selection of coverage relating to Professor Caulfield's articles and the release of the ISSCR guidelines.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He is the author of the award-winning Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?