Why has putative neuroscience flooded the culture? And why don't some people recognize how much brain science is over-hyped? What is that people are really seeking when they buy the pop-science books or attend the neuro-this and neuro-that presentations? What do readers of these books (and articles) and attendees of these events think neuroscience can provide? Chances are high that whatever is being sought will not be delivered by brain science.
Everyday this neuro thing becomes more widespread; the number of pilgrims to Mount Brain grows; the promises of what the brain can tell us increase in outlandishness. Fortunately, articles and blog posts are being written to warn us about the growing brain silliness. Today I call your attention to two.
From "Your brain on pseudoscience" (NewStatesman):
An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.
Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.
“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”
But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is
routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy ... .
Click to read the rest.The second warning is from Wiredco.uk. It's a post summarizing a TED talk by a neuroscientist. From "Neuroscientist Molly Crockett: how to spot 'neurobollocks'":
Crockett explained a number of ways to spot classic "neurobollocks". The first unproven claim was the idea that you can use brain scans to read people's thoughts and emotions. She mentioned an article written in the New York Times, which claimed that a study had shown that people loved their iPhones in a literal sense. This is because a study had shown an area of the brain called the insular cortex that is also associated sometimes with positive feelings of love and compassion. What the article failed to mention, was that the insular cortex is active in as many as a third of all brain imaging studies and is more frequently associated with negative than positive emotions. "So based on the same brain activity you could equally prove you hate the iPhone," Crockett said.
Click to read the rest.
Both pieces are recommended, not dry, often funny. Enjoy.Note (added November 23, 2012): Criticism of simplistic or inaccurate neuroscience is a popular topic. This weekend's New York Times includes "Neuroscience: Under Attack." Excerpt"
Meet the “neuro doubters.” The neuro doubter may like neuroscience but does not like what he or she considers its bastardization by glib, sometimes ill-informed, popularizers.
A gaggle of energetic and amusing, mostly anonymous, neuroscience bloggers — including Neurocritic [here], Neuroskeptic [here], Neurobonkers [here] and Mind Hacks [here] — now regularly point out the lapses and folly contained in mainstream neuroscientific discourse. ...
A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.