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Groundbreaking! A Breakthrough! Astonishing

Amid talk of genetic advances and their implications for public health at the 4th National Conference on Genomics and Public Health in Maryland this week, the researchers gathered to talk about a problem that has been plaguing the scientific community: hype.

Newsweek's Mary Carmichael said there has been a perception for a long time that scientists are deliberate and careful in their research, that journalists are less than accurate when reporting on scientific discoveries, and that the public doesn't know the difference. In truth, everyone shares responsibility for hype, she said. Press releases from scientific institutions are sometimes less than accurate, journalists sometimes take those releases at face value, and scientists occasionally make predictions when speaking to journalists that can then become sensationalized. To reporters, Carmichael said, be careful when reporting and analyze information carefully, instead of relying on press releases. And to researchers, she suggested, stop making wild predictions.

On the same panel, the University of Alberta's Timothy Caulfield highlighted the many reasons scientists and reporters can be prone to hype. For researchers, there are pressures to advance in their careers and publish papers and increasing pressure to commercialize or translate their research into profitable drugs or medical devices, he said. For the media, there is also pressure to get the "sexy story," Caulfield added. This often means that stories about science are polarized — something is either a breakthrough or a catastrophe, with not much in between — in order to appeal to the public.

Finally, the University of Georgia's Celeste Condit called into question the very notion of "the public." There are "multiple publics," she said. There are those that are driven by political considerations, those that don't care at all about science, those with market-driven concerns, and so on. It's impossible to lump them all together, she added.

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