Neurobabble makes nonsense brain 'science' more believable

Coming soon: Neuroscience aftershave!

Neuroscientific explanations of human behaviour appeal to people because we’re suckers for simplified, mechanistic brain-centred explanations – even if they’re rubbish or don’t make sense.

A droll study by four psychologists tested psychological statements and placed them alongside “irrelevant” information from neuroimaging fMRI scans, to “ask whether such superfluous neuroscience information increases the perceived quality of psychological explanations and begin to explore the possible mechanisms underlying this effect”.

They also tested participants' analytical skills. Some of the psychological insights were well founded, while some were rubbish. Did the inclusion of neuroimaging fMRI make the rubbish sound more authoritative?

Apparently so.

“Across four experiments, the presence of irrelevant neuroscience information made arguments more compelling,” they found.

Previous researchers (e.g. Weisberg 2008 and Hook and Farah 2013) showed that completely made-up neuroscientific research carried weight “when paired with either a brain picture or a bar chart”, and this study replicates it.

“People’s reasoning about psychological phenomena was biased by the presence of irrelevant neuroscience information,” they found, as before.

However, this study also asked participants to evaluate a statement with irrelevant neurobabble compared to one with irrelevant research drawn from hard science, and social sciences.

“Superfluous neuroscience information was also more compelling than social science information, increasing the quality of arguments by 0.31 of a point”, they found in one experiment.

The study found that slapping some “real” science in didn’t make a difference: “the natural sciences weren’t any more compelling than the social sciences, despite their much higher prestige”.

“The domain of psychology may also help explain the lack of correlation between holding dualist beliefs and being swayed by the allure of neuroscience. This null result runs counter to the brain-as-engine-of-mind hypothesis,” they conclude.

The rise and fall of neurobabble

In recent years, such simplified neuro-centric explanations have moved from TED talks aimed at marketing and advertising types on junkets, into the mainstream, with claims that a “new psychology” had been born out of the fMRI brain scan experiments.

Bestsellers echoed the view that humans were simply half-finished, poorly debugged robots who could’t make decisions, and who literally didn’t “know their own minds” – like BF Skinner’s rats walking upright. Newspapers were awash with colourful “Your brain on...” fMRI scans. Neurobabble rampaged through the social sciences, giving birth to neuro-economics, “neuro law” and “neuro-ethics”. Neuroscientists should advise politicians, the head of the RSA suggested.

A few inconvenient facts were overlooked in the rush. Many fMRI-based papers were junk science which involved statistical massaging. The best-selling neurobabble author Jonah Lehrer – once described by the Observer newspaper as “the prodigy who lights up the brain” – was found to be making up quotes.

It was hard to create any new science out of all the new “behavioural insights”, because there were far more exceptions than rules. It wasn’t something you could usefully build on. Perhaps, given deliberately confusing cognitive experiments, humans were acting... confused?

Inevitably, the neuro-everything movement fell into some very old philosophical potholes. For a taste, here’s one by Marxist Prof Raymond Tallis, and one from conservative Roger Scruton – both are excellent. Neurolaw and neurotics were particularly troubling, since once you abolished human agency, you could never find anyone guilty. Everyone was innocent and able to claim, “my frontal cortex did it”.

More recently, Alfred Mele has attempted to debunk one of neuroscience’s bedrocks, by re-examining psychologist Libet’s experiments on free will. Perhaps when your brain “makes a decision” (as Libet asserted) before the conscious mind can intervene, it isn’t making a decision at all, but gathering evidence?

The “new science” of neuro-based insights looks a great deal shakier today than it did a few years ago, although there is a rearguard action to write neurobabble into the research curriculum. Which, a cynic might say, will keep the proponents in demand for a few years yet. ®

"Superfluous neuroscience information makes explanations of psychological phenomena more appealing" (Fernandez Duque, et al; Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience: 2015 May) – free version (pdf).

Other stories you might like

  • North Korea pulled in $400m in cryptocurrency heists last year – report

    Plus: FIFA 22 players lose their identity and Texas gets phony QR codes

    In brief Thieves operating for the North Korean government made off with almost $400m in digicash last year in a concerted attack to steal and launder as much currency as they could.

    A report from blockchain biz Chainalysis found that attackers were going after investment houses and currency exchanges in a bid to purloin funds and send them back to the Glorious Leader's coffers. They then use mixing software to make masses of micropayments to new wallets, before consolidating them all again into a new account and moving the funds.

    Bitcoin used to be a top target but Ether is now the most stolen currency, say the researchers, accounting for 58 per cent of the funds filched. Bitcoin accounted for just 20 per cent, a fall of more than 50 per cent since 2019 - although part of the reason might be that they are now so valuable people are taking more care with them.

    Continue reading
  • Tesla Full Self-Driving videos prompt California's DMV to rethink policy on accidents

    Plus: AI systems can identify different chess players by their moves and more

    In brief California’s Department of Motor Vehicles said it’s “revisiting” its opinion of whether Tesla’s so-called Full Self-Driving feature needs more oversight after a series of videos demonstrate how the technology can be dangerous.

    “Recent software updates, videos showing dangerous use of that technology, open investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the opinions of other experts in this space,” have made the DMV think twice about Tesla, according to a letter sent to California’s Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), chair of the Senate’s transportation committee, and first reported by the LA Times.

    Tesla isn’t required to report the number of crashes to California’s DMV unlike other self-driving car companies like Waymo or Cruise because it operates at lower levels of autonomy and requires human supervision. But that may change after videos like drivers having to take over to avoid accidentally swerving into pedestrians crossing the road or failing to detect a truck in the middle of the road continue circulating.

    Continue reading
  • Alien life on Super-Earth can survive longer than us due to long-lasting protection from cosmic rays

    Laser experiments show their magnetic fields shielding their surfaces from radiation last longer

    Life on Super-Earths may have more time to develop and evolve, thanks to their long-lasting magnetic fields protecting them against harmful cosmic rays, according to new research published in Science.

    Space is a hazardous environment. Streams of charged particles traveling at very close to the speed of light, ejected from stars and distant galaxies, bombard planets. The intense radiation can strip atmospheres and cause oceans on planetary surfaces to dry up over time, leaving them arid and incapable of supporting habitable life. Cosmic rays, however, are deflected away from Earth, however, since it’s shielded by its magnetic field.

    Now, a team of researchers led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) believe that Super-Earths - planets that are more massive than Earth but less than Neptune - may have magnetic fields too. Their defensive bubbles, in fact, are estimated to stay intact for longer than the one around Earth, meaning life on their surfaces will have more time to develop and survive.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022