Can hype be a force for good?

Long black served beautifully with lavender spring and vibrant napkin

Today, I’m going to discuss one of my own articles as part of my research brief series. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, this paper contains the core conclusions of my thesis research and I’ve been promising to share those conclusions with people for years! Second, I couldn’t make it open access and this is a nice way of sharing the content (though I’m sure there’s a preprint somewhere online if you look…). 

So! Let’s look at my research essay on whether science hype can be a force for good.

Can hype be a force for good? Inviting unexpected engagements with science and technology

A brief summary

Problem: Hype in science is prevalent in science communication. Examples include celebrity scientists and exaggerated claims for the outcomes of research. I wanted to know: Is hype always a distortion and a lie? Or, can it be redeemed? 

Findings: I present the hidden opportunity of hype in which hype serves as a way of drawing out responses from the people impacted by science and technology.

More detail

Defining science hype

Before we launch into more detail, I want to take a moment to define hype. I do this because in this essay, and in my research, I draw strongly on the rhetorical heritage of hype and make no assumption as to whether hype is good or bad. 

This is important as hype is – to an extent – inevitable in the communication of science and technology. Definitions of hype, particularly science hype, centre on sensationalisation, simplification, and exaggeration. Hype is a means of expressing ‘yet unimagined possibilities’ and a common feature of the English language. 

Hype becomes difficult when we are asked to explain what the exaggerations of this rhetorical trope mean. This need for explanation also prompts active reflection on how meaning if constructed and conveyed. 

Underlying this role of hype is the assumption that communication is constitutive and engagement is performative. When we ‘do’ science communication, the act of communicating brings together different people and groups. This creates relationships and identities specifically in relation to the topic at hand. 

This process of engaging with one another makes different publics and the underlying assumptions of science and technology visible.

Okay, what are the drawbacks of science hype?

Science hype can be problematic. For instance, in research with implications for healthcare hype is intensely personal when it is used to promise breakthrough cures for disease and these promises are heard by patients and their loved ones. 

In the case of stem cell research, this has led to expectations for medical treatments that don’t yet exist and, consequently, to the rise of stem cell tourism – where patients travel overseas for unproven treatments. 

Because hype raises expectations, it naturally leads to disappointment and disillusionment where promised outcomes are not delivered. 

An practical view take on hype

Balancing hope and excitement with disappointment and disillusionment is an integral part of way science and technology actors seek funding and support for their work. Because the outcomes of these research projects are often so far in the future, they must create a picture of that future within the present. 

NASA is a classic example of this aspect of science communication. The space agency has been publicly promoting its vision of reaching Mars for years, despite the timeline for realising this goal being set at 2030 at the earliest. 

Here, hype helps NASA advocate for a particular future of space exploration. The agency uses exciting visions of a human presence on the planet to grab public attention, justify public investment, and exclude other options for space exploration. 

Could hype be a force for good?

So, we’ve seen here how hype can be negative or just useful for science and technology. But, can it be a force for good? 

The two examples that I’ve briefly introduced you to have foreshadowed the answer. 

In the case of stem cell science in Australia, raised expectations in patients for medical treatments has resulted in the creation of patient advocacy groups. For NASA, a deliberate shaping of the narrative has prevented alternate plans for space exploration coming to fruition with lobby group Explore Mars going as far as to outline how the focus of Mars can be maintained in their yearly reports. 

Here we have one instance of hype creating an opportunity for the participation of new voices in science and technology and one instance where this has been prevented. 

In my work, I’ve considered how the use of hype to draw attention to imagined outcomes from science and technology, also draws attention to the assumptions that inform them. 

Clive Barnett, a profession of geography and social theory, has noted elsewhere that “speaking for others is not a zero-sum game of silencing or exclusion, but an invitation, an opening up of a scene of claims and counter-claims”. In other words, by making a topic public you invite other people to contribute their own perspectives. Hype invites response, agreeable or otherwise. 

In some areas hype has generated more thoughtful discussions of how to make technical developments more socially responsible. One example of this is the push for reviewing and amending the ethical concerns raised by Artificial Intelligence.

This characteristic of hype presents an interesting angle for future research into how initial exaggeration and sensational of possible futures might be opened up into a broader discussion of whether we, as a society, want those futures. 

In that sense, hype is about imagination in science and technology. Here, the role of imagination is concerned with how new developments fit into the world and how our world might change to incorporate them. 

Further reading

Roberson, T, (2020), Can hype be a force for good?: Inviting unexpected engagement with science and technology futures, Public Understanding of Science, DOI: 10.1177/0963662520923109

Roberson, T., (2020), Can hype be a force for good?, ANU Open Access Theses, DOI: 10.25911/5e7099785f114 [Open Access]

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