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, Neuroskeptic, Neurobonkers and Mind Hacks — now regularly point out the lapses and folly contained in mainstream neuroscientific discourse. This group, for example, slammed a recent Newsweek article in which a neurosurgeon claimed to have discovered that “heaven is real” after his cortex “shut down.” Such journalism, these critics contend, is “shoddy,” nothing more than “simplified pop.” Additionally, publications from The Guardian to the New Statesman have published pieces blasting popular neuroscience-dependent writers like Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell. The Oxford neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop’s scolding lecture on the science of bad neuroscience was an online sensation last summer.
from Neuroscience: Under Attack
By ALISSA QUART
Published: November 23, 2012
Thanks to author Alissa Quart for mentioning The Neurocritic in her New York Times Opinion piece, along Neuroskeptic, Neurobonkers, Mind Hacks, and Dorothy Bishop.1 Ms. Quart opens her salvo against bad neuroscience, and its misrepresentation in the popular press, with an easy target: Naomi Wolf and her Vagina: A New Biography. Several of the Neuro Doubters wrote popular, well-received posts that were critical of Ms. Wolf's grasp of neuroscience.2
Another specific target is Chris Mooney's book, The Republican Brain. I have not read this book (or any excerpts) and therefore cannot offer an opinion on it. However, the "Political Brain" has been the topic of flawed studies, bad press releases, and even an ill-conceived op-ed in a famous newspaper, so I'll use this as an example of the varieties of Neuro Doubt.
Flawed studies - One study concluded that Liberals Are Neurotic and Conservatives Are Antisocial, another that Conservatives Are Neurotic and Liberals Are Antisocial. OR perhaps Atheists Are Neurotic and Religious Zealots Are Antisocial.
Bad press releases - The title of this spoof press release says it all: New research provides fresh evidence that bogus press releases may depend largely on our biological make-up. This well-deserved parody covered an unpublished study on the purported differences between the brains of Democrats vs. Republicans. The timing? Right before Election Day. It was a university press office's attempt at positive publicity that backfired, in my view.
Ill-conceived op-eds (in the New York Times) - This is Your Brain on Politics presented the results of a neuroimaging study on swing voters in the Opinion Pages of the NYT (rather than in a professional journal). A peer-review drubbing of sorts took place in a Letter to the Editor: Politics and the Brain.
The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations
One problem with the ubiquity of pop neuroscience is that pretty colorful pictures of brains can sway people to believe that some outlandish statement is true. This was shown by McCabe and Castel (2008) in "Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning." Another aptly-titled article, "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations," provided verbal descriptions of brain scans to convince people that a bogus scientific argument was valid (Weisberg et al., 2008).
The Rise of Neurobollocks and Neuromania
It's actually very trendy these days to bash neuroscience. In fact it's so fashionable that I've considered starting a backlash against the backlash - The Neurocomplimenter (e.g., "That was a fantastic study! Good show!"). I am, after all, a working neuroscientist so I don't want to see my field go down in flames. But are we at risk for that? Is neuroscience really under attack? The most potent form of attack would be financial. I haven't noticed a specific decrease in federal funding for neuroscience; the downturn in the U.S. has affected research in general. What I have noticed is an increase in anti-neuroscientism punditry:
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.
My response to such alarmist hype was to call it the Journomarketing of Neurobollocks. Yes, it's true that the neurorelationship self-help cottage industry (for instance) tries to sell books by claiming to be scientific. And that any knowledge of the brain is completely unnecessary for take-home messages that include the benefits of mindfulness meditation and tips for attaining goals.
According to Quart:
Neuroscience has joined company with other totalizing worldviews — Marxism, Freudianism, critical theory — that have been victim to overuse and misapplication.[NOTE: I never suspected my discipline was self-aware enough to have a totalizing worldview...]
But interestingly, I would guess that critical theorists are among those leading the charge against neuroscientism in academia, in a repudiation of overly biological and reductionist explanations for human behavior. 3
1 Thanks also to Time writer Maia Szalavitz, who recommended my blog to Ms. Quart.
2 And her odd declarations, such as "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain." See Feminist Dopamine, Conscious Vaginas, and the Goddess Array, Naomi Wolf's "Vagina" is full of bad science about the brain, and Mind Hacks author Dr. Vaughan Bell's pre-Vagina post on Naomi Wolf, porn and the misuse of dopamine. And don't miss the posts by our kindred science writers.
3 See Neuroetiquette and Neuroculture and Post-Antipsychiatry.
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