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Comprehension of the fragility of medical findings in participatory media formats

Working groupKnowledge Construction Lab
FundingGerman Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Project description

The project investigated how laypeople understand and assess novel medical findings depicted in journalistic texts and online fora. Aim of the project was to identify factors that can lead to a better transfer of research findings into public.

We find ourselves confronted with medical news in the media on a daily basis. This is useful, because the media generates knowledge and thereby empowers us to make informed health care decisions. However, each piece of medical information presented reflects only a small extract of the actual state of affairs and the current discourse in the scientific community. Medical knowledge is also inherently fragile, with any published findings generally warranting further investigation.

This project investigated factors which may influence our understanding and appraisal of medical news in journalistic articles and online fora. Deep brain stimulation, for which knowledge is generally limited in the general public, was used as sample topic in this research. The procedure describes the electrical stimulation of locations in the brain and is used, for instance, to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

In a series of experimental laboratory studies, different situational influence factors on understanding and assessment of medical findings in journalistic articles were manipulated, such as the text’s saliency of fragility of the medical findings, the balance of the presentation, the recipients’ prior knowledge of the procedure, or the presence and type of user comments on the article. Additionally, the potential influence by personal trait variables was investigated – like people’s beliefs about the concept of knowledge ('epistemic beliefs'), their self-efficacy or their cognitive abilities. Furthermore, a field study about real world journalistic articles and real user comments could replicate some of the findings from the laboratory studies: Internet users are actually able to detect the tentativeness of novel scientific findings – if the underlying article makes it salient and presents the information in a balanced way. Concurrently, a higher amount of perceived tentativeness seems to influence both the rating of scientific credibility and attitude towards the topic in a negative way.

The project formed one third of a multi-institute cooperation of the IWM with the Institute of Ethics and History in Medicine at the University of Tübingen. The cooperation aimed to extend the currently limited understanding of the information transfer between the scientific community, the general public and the individual. Together, a broad but systematic investigation of the topic with consideration of ethical and historical, motivational and socio-cognitive perspectives was realized. The ultimate goal was to formulate recommendations to ensure that people receive medical information in the most balanced way possible. So it could be found, for instance, that the tentativeness of findings is rated in a more realistic way, if a journalistic article is written not just one-sided positively, but opposes conflicting pieces of information and thus stimulates users to elaborate their own interpretation.


Institute of Ethics and History in Medicine at the University of Tübingen


Feinkohl, I., Flemming, D., Cress, U., & Kimmerle, J. (2016). The impact of personality factors and preceding user comments on the processing of research findings on deep brain stimulation: A randomized controlled experiment in a simulated online forum. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 18, e59.

Flemming, D., Feinkohl, I., Cress, U., & Kimmerle, J. (2015). Individual uncertainty and the uncertainty of science: The impact of perceived conflict and general self-efficacy on the perception of tentativeness and credibility of scientific information. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Kimmerle, J., Flemming, D., Feinkohl, I., & Cress, U. (2015). How laypeople understand the tentativeness of medical research news in the media: An experimental study on the perception of information about deep brain stimulation. Science Communication, 37, 173-189. doi:10.1177/1075547014556541.