That is (or was) the title of a book by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam,1 to be published by Dutton in 2010. How on earth do I know this? Back in July, The Neurocritic noticed a number of visitors to the post Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience (about the infamous paper by Vul et al.) who came from a link on the LiveJournal of shaggirl. Specifically, the traffic was from her entry A response from our friendly scientists... I took note of it, thought I might write about it but other topics took precedence. But this week, a larger surge of visitors arrived from various LiveJournal sites.2 The reason? Let's start at the beginning.
Shaggirl was "contacted by a couple of guys researching and writing about online fanfic."
Hi, Shaggirl:I do not want to begin a lengthy discourse on fan fiction, other than to quote Wikipedia:
I'm a cognitive neuroscientist at Boston University writing a book for Dutton (an imprint of Penguin) about how the Internet reveals new insights into some of the oldest circuits in our brain which control romantic attraction and sexual behavior. I was very much hoping you might be willing to chat about Crack Van on LJ.. . .For our research, we're quite interested in learning about how people creatively use text and fiction to express and explore sexuality. If you're willing, we'd like to ask questions about Crack Van and about adult fanfic in general. If you'd like, we'd be happy to include a positive mention of you and/or Crack Van in the book (or respect your privacy, if you'd prefer).If you have any questions about our research or book, please don't hesitate to ask! I look forward to hearing from you! :)Dr. Ogi Ogas
Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems
Fan fiction (alternately referred to as fanfiction, fanfic, FF, or fic) is a broadly-defined term for fan labor regarding stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator. Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work's owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published. Fan fiction, therefore, is defined by being both related to its subject's canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe.So who is Ogi Ogas? While a grad student at Boston University, he entered a well-known game show, won $500,000 and wrote about it in SEED magazine:
Who Wants to Be a Cognitive Neuroscientist Millionaire?A researcher uses his understanding of the human brain to advance on a popular quiz show.Even with all 4 choices available, it's obvious the answer is D ("Heroin: the sedative for coughs"). Prescription cough syrup contains codeine, which is a cough suppressant. [However, it is easy to say that when the stakes are nil. ANYWAY.]
In response to some questions about their book project, Gaddam replied:
Before putting any questions, let me give a brief overview of our scientific perspective and how it will inform the book. As cognitive neuroscientists, we are respectful of the fascinating diversity of the neural landscape. And this diversity, we believe, is reflected in the terrain of erotic fantasy.The internet and e-publishing now allow for a revolutionary and unprecedented disclosure of all our fantasies, not just those decided as marketable and mainstream for print. Digital publishing seems to have lead to an explosion in the array of fantasies we can now experience and learn from; the loop of imagination, desire, and actuality is now tighter. We want to 'neuro-scientifically' explore what this blossoming of fantasy means for us as individuals, and as a society. How does this access to all manner of fantasies imaginable change our brains?Given this broad overview, we have some specific questions, and more general ones about adult fanfic, that we are hoping you can help us with. I do apologize if some questions seem naive and/or I inadvertently mis-characterize something in my ignorance!He then goes on to ask a number of questions about adult fanfic. Dana (shaggirl) replied in a lengthy, thoughtful post in which she explains fandom ("composed primarily of well educated women, most of whom self-identify as geeks"), objects to the word "netporn" in their book title, and answers all 7 questions. Then A response from our friendly scientists... where yours truly gets a mention:
. . .Two things:
One quick note about the subtitle of the book: the current title is largely driven by the pre-publication marketing needs of the publication industry, and was determined by our editor. The eventual subtitle will likely change; it may still contain the term netporn, though this is increasingly unlikely [NOTE: Unlike the screenshot above, the current book project list from Gail Ross shows the NETPORN subtitle has indeed been removed]. ...
In terms of turning this into hard science, our primary goal is to make a strong case for the study of fantasy as being accessible in this era of copious datastreams from humans. To give you one example of the kind of current study in neurosexual behavior that we feel is quite limited, there was an article in the Time magazine (http://www.time.com/time/health/articl
e/0,8599,1911103,00.html) on how girls focus more on best friends while boys are more interested in group dynamics and 'packs'. The authors of the study tied this observation to the differential activation patterns in the brain based on how the subject group of boys and girls rated pictures of strangers. The article state that the "nucleus accumbens (which is associated with reward and motivation), hypothalamus (associated with hormone secretion), hippocampus (associated with social learning) and insula (associated with subjective feelings) all become more active."
The suspect and cavalier methodology of this study evoke some of the general problems that plague brain imaging experiments that purportedly examine social behavior . We hope to make the case that such methodological contortions are not required when a vast pool of people provide behavioral data on the internet through quantifiable activity.
Polling feedback from groups would be immensely useful. We would definitely love your help in reaching other fans...
 Here's a paper criticizing such casual treatment of the brain-behavior linkage, which has received a lot of attention in the neuroscience community (http://cns.bu.edu/~gsc/Articles/Vul_09
_Voodoo.pdf). The content requires an understanding of imaging methodology, but the abstract is definitely accessible. Here's a posting from a popular neuroscience blog describing the article (http://neurocritic.blogspot.com/2009/0 1/voodoo-correlations-in-social.html)
(1) They said the content of their book will be "Using new digital sources of data to illuminate brain regions and neural pathways involved in romantic and sexual behavior." However, they did not actually propose to measure brain function at all. They might be skeptical of fMRI, but it's a lot better than no real neural data at all.
(2) A poll. That generated an enormous amount of controversy in the fanfic community. [They're a very prolific bunch.] Hundreds of posts. Thousands of comments.
SurveyFail - an entire wiki devoted to the controversy.
The poll was taken down (although you can view the questions elsewhere: part 1, part 2) and the ogi_ogas LiveJournal deleted (but here's a remnant):
So what kind of scientists are you anyway?We're brain modelers. We're aligned with the relatively new field of cognitive neuroscience.... . .Our current research project will result in a model that makes novel behavioral and physiological predictions.From a poorly written survey? And just when you think their project is a wee bit grandiose, the pomposity reaches stunning proportions:
The greater one's mathematical ability, the greater the opportunity for designing a powerful and sophisticated model. Superior models, such as those of Stephen Grossberg and Gail Carpenter, may include unsolvable systems of differential equations. Still, useful and productive models can be constructed using relatively straightforward mathematics.Oh, and here's a ridiculous question:
How is straight female interest in slash fiction like straight male interest in "shemale"* models? And why in the world does this matter?* ...We are aware that the term "shemale" may be used as a pejorative, but we are here referring to the narrowly defined term used in the adult industry for certain models.One does not need to be an expert in any of these fields to see the problems inherent in the Ogas and Gaddam approach of inferring brain function from data on netporn usage (broadly construed) and unscientific polls. But it gets worse...
The structure and activity of our subcortical circuits are shaped by neurohormones such as testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin, progesterone, and vasopressin; these circuits function differently in men and women. As cognitive neuroscientists, we draw upon a wide variety of empirical data sources to model these circuits, including brain imaging studies, primate research, cognitive science experiments, machine learning algorithms--and behavioral data. The Internet offers large, unprecedented sources of data on human activity: one of these data sets is fan fiction.We're deeply interested in broad-based behavioral data that involves romantic or erotic cognition and evinces a clear distinction between men and women. Fan fiction matches this criteria perfectly. Let us make clear, however: fan fiction is not the subject of our research. Our subject is the human brain. For us, fan fiction is a wonderfully rich source of data--like single-neuron recordings in rhesus monkeys--albeit a unique and invaluable one....because fan fiction is just as precise as single-unit recording at revealing putative sex differences in subcortical circuits. In spite of a wink and a nod to "erotic cognition" Ogas & Gaddam reveal elsewhere in their manifesto that they're not at all interested in cortical function.
Furthermore, were the ethics of conducting research on human subjects taken into consideration? Did the pair have proper approval from Boston University's Institutional Review Board? Here's deadlychameleon's investigation:
I called the Boston University IRB office. The direct approach works.They've gotten a lot of emails regarding Dr. Ogas. He is no longer in any way affiliated with Boston University, except as a recent graduate. They have asked him to stop using his official Boston University email address in connection with this project, or his website. He is officially on his own, and this project is NOT IRB APPROVED.That is the official status as stated by the Boston University IRB office.And in the end, from a neuroscientific viewpoint, the premise of their work was fatally flawed. Dutton, are you listening?
1 You'll notice these links are from the Google cache, because they took down their websites after the resulting furor. Both are recent graduates from the Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems at Boston University. Gaddam had not yet updated his resume to reflect this.
2 Other visitors were from dreamwidth.org, a LiveJournal knockoff that had escaped my awareness until now.
Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]