Friday, September 14, 2012

Journomarketing of Neurobollocks

Are you one of the few Anglophones who haven't yet heard about the frightening new fields of neuromarketing and neuroeconomics? Or that pop neuroscience is popular? Well thank god we have Steven Poole to set us straight!
Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

By Steven Poole
Published 06 September 2012

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.

It may be "everywhere" but it's been around for a while. But you wouldn't guess from reading Poole, who acts as if he's discovered this infectious plague all by himself. He hasn't noticed that many others before him have closely examined and criticized the misuse of brain science to sell self-help books or to advance an academic career. Even his neurowords are old, invented or popularized by other people. Raymond Tallis, for instance, is known for neurotrash and neuroscientism. But even Tallis didn't coin these words.1

Poole hasn't done his homework, which is unfortunate for someone who uses terms like "intellectual pestilence" as a casual insult. Perhaps he should know more about the fields he ridicules:

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”.

Let's see, Wired had a 1999 piece on neurotheology, and Sharon Begley wrote about it in 2001 (Your Brain on Religion: Mystic visions or brain circuits at work?). Neuroeconomics has been around since the late 1990s, and has desperately tried to distinguish itself from its more applied cousin (neuromarketing, a term coined in 2002).2 And lots of people, apparently, are doing “neurocriticism” of various sorts (e.g., this blog and neuro-lit-crit and Critical Neuroscience).

But here's Poole again:
Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.
Why yes, it is a bit late to jump on the bandwagon...

Nonetheless, there are some wonderful quotes from Professor Paul Fletcher, who...
...gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

But these important points get buried in the bile inflicted on Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell. Haven't they been beaten to death already? And it's not at all clear why he would go after distinguished cognitive scientist Dr. Art Markman and lump him in with the highly discredited agenda of neurolinguistic programming:
Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. The field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others.

Markman's book has different subtitles in the US and the UK, but it doesn't yammer on about neuro-anything, from what I can tell (and only mentions the word "brain" 7 times).

A number of neurobloggers and journalists have been tackling shoddy neuroscience for years, whether in journal articles or books or mainstream media.3 The Neurocritic has extensive coverage of books [and other claims] by Louann Brizendine and Daniel Amen, for instance, along with copious criticism of media coverage and press releases that distort and exaggerate neuroscience findings.

Along with Mind Hacks, one of the major influences on this blog was Bad Neurojournalism (later renamed the Neuro-Journalism Mill), a collection of bad neuroscience journalism from 1998-2009, compiled by a comedian at the James S. McDonnell Foundation. A few examples (all definitely worth the click):
2000-10-28 Looking for That Brain Wave Called Love: Humanities Experts Use MRI's to Scan the Mind for the Locus of the Finer Feelings

2000-03-04 Men's Brains Have More Cells, Say Scientists Who Counted

2000-03-14 Just What's Going On Inside That Head of Yours? 4

There's always room for snarky new neurocriticism, Mr. Poole, but please realize that simplified pop visions of oxytocin and dopamine and mirror neurons have been under siege for years.

FYI - Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.


1 For a short primer, we return to 2006 and the entertaining neuroword contest hosted by Neurofuture. Among the entries:

neurotrash: a group of attractive, progressive, and fashionable young neuroscientists of non-european heritage. (M. Miller)

neurosceptic: someone who doubts grand media claims made on behalf of neuroscience. (Vaughan Bell)

neurogibberish: Seemingly impressive jargon used by some neuroscientists to hide lack of real findings. (E.)

neuroessentialism: the belief in, or tactic of, invoking evidence, or merely terms, from neuroscience to justify claims at the psychological level. See also neuromysticism, neurobollocks. (Tom Stafford)

2 According to Paul W. Glimcher:
Neuroeconomics is a purely academic discipline concerned with the basic mechanisms of decision-making. In contrast, Neuromarketing is a more applied field concerned with the application of brain scanning technology to the traditional goals and questions of interest of marketers, both those in academia and those in private industry. While these two disciplines are related, they are also very distinct. This is a distinction often overlooked by the popular media.

3 Bad Science, BishopBlog, Daniel Bor, Ed Yong, LawsNeuroBlog, Mind Hacks, Neurobonkers, Neurophilosophy, Neuroskeptic, Neuron Culture, Oscillatory Thoughts, Scicurious, etc. [NOTE: I may keep adding to this list.]

4 The seductive allure of fMRI was initially revealed by the New York Times in 2000:
The technology is seductively easy to use, said Dr. Christopher Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who is carrying out a number of imaging studies. ''You can think of an idea, throw five friends into the scanner overnight and write up your results the next day. People don't have to think very hard about what they're doing.''

-from Just What's Going On Inside That Head of Yours?
Published: March 14, 2000

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At September 14, 2012 10:39 PM, Blogger practiCal fMRI said...

Neuroblanking: A state in which those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

At September 16, 2012 10:44 AM, Blogger Art Markman said...

Thanks for your defense of Smart Thinking. I know that Poole is no fan of the book. (He already wrote a snarky review of it several months ago for the Guardian.) But, his strange juxtaposition of my book with NLP was really shocking.

And, as you point out, the points in my book are based primarily on behavioral studies not brain-based studies. Though, I am a big fan of the brain...

Anyhow, I appreciate the defense.

At September 19, 2012 11:09 AM, Anonymous Amelie said...

The primary reason people can be fleeced by neuro-tossing authors (and critics) is because they don't understand the technology. People know you can't dry towels or fluff up your cat with a microwave, but they don't know the limitations of a brain scanner. Maybe that should be the required opening chapter to any book or article containing neuro-claims.

At September 24, 2012 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy is also so uninformed he thinks the authors of the invisible gorilla are authorities in the field of neuroscience! We are talking here about psychologists who published a faddy book themselves and who have no education in neuroscience.

At March 06, 2013 10:00 AM, Blogger E.M. said...

I like your blog in general, but this post disappointed me. You're mad at this author for making an accurate and readable argument against neurobollocks because he's not the first to do it? What sense does that make, when it's a message well worth repeating--and will be as long as people keep buying neurotrash books in large quantities?

BTW, I'm in my 20's with vision corrected to normal and I still can't read the numbers in your CAPTCHA. I can't be the only person who has trouble.

At March 06, 2013 10:29 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Emily Morson - It doesn't take much effort for a writer to acknowledge that others have made the same point before. Given his sarcastic, biting, and glib tone, and his propensity for unjustly attacking work he doesn't understand (e.g., that of Art Markman), it seemed appropriate to point out some of the shortcomings of his article.

Poole is very self-satisfied, and beats the Gladwell and Lehrer dead horses to bring home his point, which is old hat.

Of course it's not a bad thing to write critiques of pop neuro, but you'd better do your homework first.


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