Neuro-Pretensions: Attacking the Science of Pop Neuroscience


Steven Poole in the New Statesman has a fun and feisty attack–very appropriate in the memory of Thomas Szasz, one of the great warriors against the scientistic pretensions of our knowledge of the human mind–on pop neuroscience books, for grossly overstating the value of fMRI evidence, burying truistic speculation under the guise of cutting-edge science, and sheer hand-waving silliness, among other intellectual crimes.

It's long and goes a lot of places (and pokes fun and contempt at a lot of specific books, authors, and arguments), but here's some fun bits:

Today's ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he 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."….

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it "lights up" on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows……

And when no one knows, there is so, so much to be said….

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such "brain porn", but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. "This is your brain on music", announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music…. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain….

One might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks' chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such "hidden" information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

I wrote for Reason back in July 2007 the essay "'You Can't See Why on an fMRI'" on the pretensions of neuroscience as applied to courts and the insanity defense. Not much has changed in lay journalists' and readers' desire to think that science knows and has proven more about brain and mind than it actually has.