Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Additional Critiques

Still undecided, swing readers?

Photos of Hillary Clinton elicited increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that processes conflicting impulses, in swing voters who reported having an unfavorable opinion of her.

Icons by Jennifer Daniel, New York Times

By now, anyone remotely connected to neuroimaging research knows about the new outlet for your latest sensationalistic findings: a New York Times Op-Ed piece.

But the reality is that we actually don't know what the swing voters in this experiment were thinking, and the attribution of conflicting impulses based on activity in the anterior cingulate cortex is an example of...
the logical fallacy known as "reverse inference" - inferring the participants' emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity (Aguirre, 2003; Poldrack, 2006).
Several new critiques of the Iacoboni et al. study have appeared in these blogs:

Brain Ethics, by Thomas Ramsøy

Neuroethics & Law Blog, by Martha Farah

Omni Brain, by Steve Higgins

Mind Hacks, by Vaughan Bell

Wired Science, by Brandon Keim


But the highlight is this Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, signed by 17 experts in neuroimaging:
Politics and the Brain

Published: November 14, 2007

To the Editor:

“This Is Your Brain on Politics” (Op-Ed, Nov. 11) used the results of a brain imaging study to draw conclusions about the current state of the American electorate. The article claimed that it is possible to directly read the minds of potential voters by looking at their brain activity while they viewed presidential candidates.

For example, activity in the amygdala in response to viewing one candidate was argued to reflect “anxiety” about the candidate, whereas activity in other areas was argued to indicate “feeling connected.” While such reasoning appears compelling on its face, it is scientifically unfounded.

As cognitive neuroscientists who use the same brain imaging technology, we know that it is not possible to definitively determine whether a person is anxious or feeling connected simply by looking at activity in a particular brain region. This is so because brain regions are typically engaged by many mental states, and thus a one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.

. . .

As cognitive neuroscientists, we are very excited about the potential use of brain imaging techniques to better understand the psychology of political decisions. But we are distressed by the publication of research in the press that has not undergone peer review, and that uses flawed reasoning to draw unfounded conclusions about topics as important as the presidential election.

Adam Aron, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego
David Badre, Ph.D., Brown University
Matthew Brett, M.D., University of Cambridge
John Cacioppo, Ph.D., University of Chicago
Chris Chambers, Ph.D., University College London
Roshan Cools, Ph.D., Radboud University, Netherlands
Steve Engel, Ph.D., University of Minnesota
Mark D’Esposito, M.D., University of California, Berkeley
Chris Frith, Ph.D., University College London
Eddie Harmon-Jones, Ph.D., Texas A&M University
John Jonides, Ph.D., University of Michigan
Brian Knutson, Ph.D., Stanford University
Liz Phelps, Ph.D., New York University
Russell Poldrack, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Tor Wager, Ph.D., Columbia University
Anthony Wagner, Ph.D., Stanford University
Piotr Winkielman, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego

Aguirre GK (2003). Functional Imaging in Behavioral Neurology and Cognitive Neuropsychology. In: T.E. Feinberg & M.J. Farah (Eds.), Behavioral Neurology and Cognitive Neuropsychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Poldrack RA (2006). Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10: 59-63.

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At November 16, 2007 11:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More fascinating than the list of 17 people who signed this letter would be the list of people who *refused* to sign it. I am kind of hoping that would be a null set, outside of the people who wrote the op-ed.

Of course, a lot more people would have signed it than did sign it because they were never given the chance. But I really wish everybody had been given the chance so I wouldn't have to wonder why Dr. X did not sign it.

I also want to know who at the Times green-lighted the original piece; does anybody in Neurocritic Land have an idea?

At November 17, 2007 12:05 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Perhaps another anonymous commenter will leave a tip about the signatories... No insights about who approved the original piece at the Times, either.

At November 24, 2007 12:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, besides the scathing letter from your peers, I would say this editorial in Nature is about as definitive a smackdown as you can get...

At November 24, 2007 1:38 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for the link to that Nature Editorial, I did see it the other day. Here's a choice quote:

"Articles on The New York Times op-ed pages are opinionated by definition, and shouldn't normally require peer review. But here, the paper's editors have instead published the results of (to put it mildly) questionable scientific research, disseminating this information to millions of their readers who may not have the background to recognize for themselves the absurdity of some of the authors' conclusions."


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