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Questions for TIME about its prediction of a pill to make us more compassionate

I was challenged by a fellow health care journalist to address a story by TIME.com, with this headline, “There Could Soon Be a Pill to Make Us More Compassionate.”

The story reports that, in “a new study, published in the journal Current Biology…A group led by researchers at University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco shows that by manipulating a brain chemical, people can become more compassionate and act in prosocial ways to equalize differences.”

But it also reports that the study was in just 35 people seen only twice each.

You don’t even need to know any more of the details of the study to know that this is a tiny sample…an inconclusive finding…and nowhere near anything that could be defined as “soon.”

The story admits that “The results certainly aren’t the answer to promoting more compassion in society,” but then allows a researcher to call this “an important step.”  And that quote did not come from a direct interview with the researcher, but from a news release from UC-Berkeley, home of the research.

There is no independent perspective in the TIME story.

Framing compassion or social interaction as behaviors that need to be boosted with a pill is, in effect, disease-mongering.

Manipulating a brain chemical like dopamine – as this research did – carries the potential for harm.  There was no discussion of potential harm in the story.

As you see, the piece was labeled as a Health/Medicine piece by TIME, not a Science story.  Health/Medicine implies that this is something that has immediate human implications.  Just as “There could soon be a pill…” makes that statement.

TIME needs to take more time to explain what “soon” means and doesn’t mean.

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Comments (2)

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Roland B. Stark

March 30, 2015 at 9:41 am

The fact that the study used “35 people seen only twice each” does not in itself make the results inconclusive. Random assignment to the “treatment” or placebo group can help a researcher glean a lot of information from such a sample. But degree of conclusiveness has a lot to do with the size of the effect, and all the article tells us is that the dopamine group was “more likely to share.” We can probably assume that the difference was statistically significant according to *someone*’s criteria, but it’s necessary to report that level of significance–and, more importantly, the likelihood difference itself. A very common and very insidious sort of mistake.