In his latest post over at the Law and Biosciences Blog, Stanford’s Hank Greely, JD, comments on one annoying error that sometimes pops up in scientific reporting: a sort of scientific synecdoche that reporters use when referring to cells, tissues, or organs as having a disease or quality that really only applies to the affected person. To put it more simply, individual body parts don’t get sick; people do.
Greely’s blog post was inspired by a headline referring to a group of neural cells, which had been derived from stem cells collected from a person with schizophrenia, as “schizophrenic brain cells.” Obviously, this label was inaccurate. Cells don’t get mental diseases because they don’t have minds.
From a journalistic standpoint, the inaccurate headline is irritating in the same way that people who confuse “your” and “you’re” are irritating to grammar enthusiasts. In the case of this headline, the inaccurate reference to “schizophrenic brain cells” (rather than “schizophrenics’ brain cells”) probably didn’t cause anyone to imagine individual brain cells hallucinating conversations with an imaginary partner.
Still, Greely is working off more than a pet peeve when he calls for pinpoint accuracy in journalism. When it comes to science and health reporting, small inaccuracies can be incredibly misleading, inspiring false hopes and inappropriate lifestyle changes. Language is a powerful tool, and reporters – the people we trust to deliver the truth – must be especially mindful of how they wield it.