MIT’s misleading PR headline on autism

We’ve now published 125 systematic criteria-driven reviews of PR news releases about health care or research.  We won’t apply all of our criteria to this one, because it is the often-all-important headline that is the focus of our commentary.


MIT mice autism

On Twitter, UC Davis professor Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics), wrote:

  • Wow turned mice into humans and a few autism-like symptoms into autism – way to go w/ the deceptive headline
  • I think should retract this headline/PR – humans are not mice; mice don’t have autism
  • And in 2011 claimed that same researcher created autism in mice  – again misleading

Immunology scientist David Usharauli (@3DiMMUNE) tweeted:

  • I am also skeptical about “autism” definition for mice.

To be clear: this isn’t a comment on the importance or quality of the research.  All of the above commentary, with which I agree, is about how the words matter.  It’s about how science communication matters.  It’s about how PR news releases from major institutions matter. And this news release got off to a very bad start.

  • The big bold headline suggests nothing other than a breakthrough in people.
  • As people smarter than I have questioned, why wasn’t the tremendous leap from mouse-to-man made more clear?  How might it not translate to humans that researchers can reduce “mice’s repetitive behavior and their tendency to avoid social interaction”???
  • The PR news release doesn’t hide the fact that the research was in mice; it simply doesn’t put it in proper context for journalists, or the public who may be spoonfed the news from journalists who were spoonfed by MIT’s PR news release.

Words matter. Our attempt to improve health/medical/science news releases matters.

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Comments (2)

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Diana Yates

February 22, 2016 at 8:39 am

Would “Neuroscientists reverse autism-like symptoms in mice” be better? The criticism is fair – and important – but, also to be fair, the headline does not appear to “turn mice into humans.” It’s clear from the whole headline (including the sub-head) that the research was done in mice.

    Kevin Lomangino

    February 22, 2016 at 10:12 am


    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think Gary’s point is that your proposed headline would have been much much better. The big bold headline is what most people see and oftentimes what gets picked up by other outlets reposting the content (without the subhead). Context needs to be provided as high up as possible — not after the research has been hyped in the big bold headline.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor