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.

NEXT: New Species of Monkey Discovered

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  1. So the science is settled then. Cool.

  2. Of course it’s settled! Look at those fMRIs!

    1. They blinded me with science!
      It got better…

  3. In your opinion, Brian, does Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate belong in the baby category or the bath water category of neuroscience books? By implication, it vindicates much of the libertarian agenda.

  4. I haven’t read that book. Our own Ronald Bailey has talked up Pinker a bit ’round these parts:

    1. I know. My above comment linked to an interview right here at

      1. Every link at Reason now links to another link at Reason.

        1. Inception.

        2. Reception!

  5. It’s long and goes a lot of places…

    Oh, if only you could be looking at an image of my brain activity when I read this and got to blurt, “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!”

    1. Your mom goes a lot of places…

      1. We were having a nice, family-friendly internet until now.

        1. Your mom wasn’t.

          1. and you are such a treasure.

            meaningless life, still ensconsed in your teenage years. and the world would be no worse off if you dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow


  6. How awkward. Jonathan Haidt, named among the charlatans in the New Statesman article, wrote an article for the printed edition of Reason. What’s the neuroscience of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?

    1. Corpus callosum damage?

      1. Anarchic Hand Syndrome. No, seriously.

    2. As regular readers probably know, Brian, the metaphorical left hands and right hands of Reason writers don’t always agree on everything. You can bet Ron would never have written this post, and would strongly disagree with it.

  7. 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?

    Never mind how, it’s not even proven that. I’m not convinced the brain does give rise to the mind. It does appear that there is a strong ass’n between a brain and a mind, but it’s not at all clear that the brain produces a mind rather than that it attracts one.

    1. That’s a pretty interesting theory. I imagine a mind just floating around looking for a place to crash for a while until it finds a real job.

      1. Yes, that basically is the best model that accounts for the evidence. It also allows the possibility of more than 1 mind sharing a brain at a time, although no evidence I know of requires such an accounting.

        1. Can you direct me towards any reference material? That sounds fascinating and I’d like to read more.

          Internet translation: I’m intrigued by your ideas, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    2. Thanks L. Ron.

      That doesn’t really solve the problem of consciousness, you know. It just moves it. And makes it worse.

  8. You know, House made more than a few diagnoses based on fMRI’s and he’s a world famous doctor.

    1. was a world famous doctor, wink wink.

  9. Sam Haris is a hack and a moron, in case anyone is interested.

    1. That’s funny, Hugh, he said the same thing about you. And so did FoE’s mom.

      1. Okay that hurts. Not Sam Harris, I couldn’t care what that doucheburger says. But after all the tender lovin I gave FoE’s mom, I would expect her to be a little nicer.

        I guess I should have tipped her better.

        1. You always were a Canadian-level tipper, Hugh. See how it comes to bite you in the ass?

  10. I haven’t read this book, but I have read ‘This is your brain on music’, and it’s mostly not about fMRI, but rather more typical psychological research, and it’s pretty persuasive. Read the section on ‘absolute pitch’, for example, and it’ll change what you think about how perception is stored. Not just for music, either.

    Daniel Levitin. 2006. This is your brain on music. Dutton.

    Interesting guy, too. Started out as a rock impresario, got interested in music cognition and went back and got a PhD in it.
    (Disclaimer: this is now part of my area of research too, and I’ve never even seen an MRI machine except the one time I was in one, and it wasn’t for science).

  11. Neuroscience is teh Debil’s psuedoscience.

    I’ve been so busy I just found out Dr. Szasz passed away.

    1. Because studying the nervous system is totally equal to measuring bumps on heads. /retard

      Never go full retard SIV.


    Music by Queen!

    Sorry, watching Encore. Got carried away.

    1. “Not the bore worms!”

      1. Gotta be one of my top 10 B movies. Pure mindless enjoyment.

        Go, Flash, go!

  13. fMRI “neuroscience” is little more (or less) than phrenology.

    1. Of course you’d say that. You have the brainpan of a stagecoach tilter.

      1. Read Andrew Ferguson’s article, “The New Phrenolgy”.…..44420.html

        1. Example: Study: Right twists facts

          Whoever can name what’s wrong with the study gets a cookie!

          1. That study is by Peter Ditto. He has another one and he’s coming after libertarians!

            1. Jonathan Haidt is part of that study too, so I’m not that worried. Besides, there’s a difference between a study with invalid results, and a rigged study. There’s no way to know just by looking at those results I posted that the study was designed that way on purpose.

            2. This Stanislas Jourdan guy, though. I’d say he comes to some conclusions that aren’t supported by the data he cites.

            3. His main conclusion?

              So what if the World was led according to the hightly [sic] rational libertarian rules? I suspect this would rapidly turn into a huge failureland.

              Indeed, he doesn’t use the data from the study to directly support his conclusion. So what does he base it on?

              In my view, the economy relies a lot on the things such as empathy, love, and social connections that the libertarians tend to deny. Competition do not not [sic] always work best.

              He makes some highly dubious and unsupported assumptions about how the economy works (aside from “social connections”, which are crucial; though I suspect his definition of “social connection” differs from mine), then makes an unsupported assumption that libertarians deny “empathy, love and social connections”. Libertarians in the study did indeed score lower on empathy and love, but I’m not sure a lower score (compared to liberals and conservatives) counts as a repudiation of those values. It simply means they aren’t given as much weight as other participants do. As for social connections, Jourdan relies on an implicit assumption that social connections are purely emotional. Libertarians, perhaps more than most, value voluntary association and cooperation very highly. I am unconvinced of his proposition that a society composed primarily (or entirely) of libertarians would be a “huge failureland”.

              1. Progressive liberals seem to have a chip on their shoulders about libertarians. Perhaps this would make a good topic for a “scientific” study.

              2. In my view, the economy relies a lot on the things such as empathy, love, and social connections that the libertarians tend to deny.

                I find it interesting that he associates the non-aggression principle with denying empathy, love, and compassion.

                His home life must be a real treat.

  14. How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows…..

    No one knows? The brain and the mind are one and the same. Problem solved by widget on September 12th, 2012.

    1. And thus history’s greatest philosophical conundrum was solved and the Kantian numenological barrier was overcome.

      All hail widget, lord of the terse philosophers.

      1. And he did it all with a totally dark fMRI!

  15. Widget may be terse but accurate.

    It’s entirely possible to me that the phenomenon of the mind has been overrated as a mystery.

    “Why does a sponge soak up water? Ooooooo mystery.”

    1. Fucking brains. How do they work?

  16. Like so many things, that we have a word for “mind” is what contributes to its apparent mystery. What do we really have? Sensory input, information processing, and reaction. A computer with eyes and hands, and only as efficient as you’d expect to result from natural selection, programmed for a specific environment. (Not to suggest the human brain lacks for amazing qualities.) What is thought but silent talking, silent hearing, and seeing in the dark?

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