Sunday, November 25, 2012

Meet The Neuro Doubters

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
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 This well-deserved parody covered an unpublished study on the purported differences between the brains of Democrats vs. Republicans.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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At November 25, 2012 9:34 AM, Blogger Angela Ronson said...

I do not fly in a UFO. I've picked up some rather strange followers (The guy who states in his profile he's not from this planet.) This kind of thing raises doubt as to what happened to me. I don't want to be grouped w/ the neurosurgeon who saw Heaven. There must be reason to what happened, or I won't believe in myself. (I approach the funding issue in ).

At November 27, 2012 10:29 AM, Anonymous James G. Long said...

I have a particular interest in this and similar blogs. Early in my military and engineering career, I worked for four different military officers and industrial managers whom I seriously thought must be crazy. I was at a complete loss, as I had never worked with anyone similar before. Then in a conversation with an uncle, he reported that he, too, had worked for two similar personalities, one of whom had achieved worldwide fame and notoriety. The light went on for both of us, and we realized that this was an infrequent, but very real, phenomenon. A minimum of research produced well over fifty similar personalities, including high-ranking politicians, bankers, corporate leaders, and mass-murderers.

I earned an MBA specifically to learn why certain officials acted in such a way, and learned nothing of use in the MBA program, nor did I learn anything of use in extensive outside reading in psychology. At that time (early 1970s) the phenomenon of psychopathy was not well understood nor widely known. I failed to make the connection between mass-murdering psychopaths (Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy) and my previous experiences with middle managers in the military and in industry.

It was not until the wave of psychopathic corporate failures in the 1990s (Sunbeam, WorldCom. Enron) that I began to understand the dimensions of the problem. The expression of psychopathic behavior includes multiple current and past crises, from Adolph Hitler to Casey Anthony, and many intermediate personalities: Bernie Madoff, Rod Blagojevich, the entire Boards of Directors of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with their $10 billion accounting fraud.

Now professional psychologists say that about one percent of the population is psychopathic, and Human Resources professionals come up with a similar figure for what they term "bully bosses" The psychopathic boss and the bully boss are identical, but psychologists claim that psychopathic bosses destroy billions of dollars of value, while Human Resources acknowledge the loss of billions of dollars, but, as loyal members of the hierarchy, they do everything possible to retain the bully boss in position, because that is what management wants.

To this date, talk of psychopathy is largely stuck on mass murderers. Few understand that psychopaths were front and center in our current financial and political troubles. The subject of psychopathy is complex and does not lend itself to easy analysis.
My purpose is to increase awareness of psychopathic behavior and its costs, which is in the billions of dollars. I would welcome any input.

At November 27, 2012 12:35 PM, Blogger Ken said...

"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!"). "

Nyuck nyuck nyuck

but seriously I might read that

At November 29, 2012 12:39 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! Neuroscience is such a hot topic, so it's easy to make grandiose conclusions about primary research articles, when in reality they are years away from what is reported. Let's keep brain news real!

At November 29, 2012 1:19 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

I happened upon the book by Eben Alexander completely 'by chance' just the next day after this post, not relating the two, followed by more such 'encounters' by the day before and afterward. There is another school of awareness that has always been present and apparent to a particular community outside of science by and large that seeks not why one's or whose brain sees things "this way or 'that'" but rather is open to something beyond cause and effect thinking by and large, or for that matter, coming to understanding and Knowing without active 'thought' at all, which is much akin to the book of reference without going into a full NDE. The experience is similar to when an individual comes to the point of the 'mid-life crisis', in realization that there is more to life than what only appears to be the most obvious. Why it is the neurodoubters have issue with the author's book is merely a matter of opinion, assumption, or presumption based on what one only thinks they think they know of or about that which they already have come to be familiar with. If it doesn't fit the model, the postulate, or the theory it is discarded. The greater Reality is that that is all those are as 'ideas contrived by the litmited mind'. This is not unique to neuroscience by science by and large across the boards. It is time that science and what some only dimly refer to as 'religion' bridge the gap if we are to advance. Much of the political polarity is a manifestation, and intermingling if you will, of this manifestation which is inevitably going to arise perhaps with greater frequency as man matures from his own personal dark ages both in as one person and society (s) at large. As we age in our own lives, if we were to stare at ourself in the mirror for 30 years straight one would not even notice the change in themselves, but step away and look back 30 years later, the change would be quite apparent. That is how we see the world in our own lives, through events and the illusion of internal perception of the passage of time as related to 'events' and experiences. The account in the book, which I have only read so far through page 80 via visits to the book store, sounds and reads (outside the visiaul recollections), completely such as he writes that his experience could only be recalled in retrospect and not as it occurred. Reason being, in such instances, time does not exist so there is no relativity. There is nothing to expect and nothing to have just remembered having 'been' or a 'was'. The net result experience of not being a function of time and space. Jung had such recollections through the Dark night of the soul in the Red Book, and notes in comparative studies with schizophrenics that although from the outside their minds of lost touch with reality, in another sense they have come in sense only with another.


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