Field of Science

New York Times falls for mind/brain duality...again

Jack Shafer at Slate runs a periodic column where he calls newspapers to task for over-using anonymous sources. An example passage culled from a New York Times article:
Republicans close to the White House said Mr. Bush was the driver of the changes made so far, including the decision to ask Mr. Rove to focus primarily on the midterm elections.
Why, Shafer asks, do those "Republicans" need to be kept anonymous down to their number (are there 2? 3?). Shafer feels this over-use of anonymous sources is at best getting in the way of informing the public, and at worse hiding people with ulterior motives.

As of this entry, I'm starting my own watch-dog column: newspapers which write inane articles espousing mind/brain duality. The latest offender is, coincidentally, The New York Times, which ran a disappointing article a few days ago called "My Cortex Made Me Buy It." It describes a recent study in which people sampled "cheap" and "expensive" wines (actually the exact same wines, just marked with different prices).
When they sampled the wines with lower prices, however, the subjects not only liked them less, their brains registered less pleasure from the experience.
It's important to consider what the alternative was: that subjects reported liking the cheaper wines less, but their brains reported the same amount of pleasure. What would that mean? One possibility is that the participants were lying: they liked both wines the same, but said they liked the more expensive ones more in order to look cultured.

There's another possibility. Dan Gilbert, who studies happiness, usually does so by simply asking people if they are happy. He doesn't worry much about people lying. He could use a physiological measure (like a brain scan, as was done in the above study), but he points out that the reason we think a particular part of the brain is related to happiness is because it correlates with people's self-reports of being happy. Using the brain scan is completely circular. Under this logic, if the brain scans fail to show more pleasure when drinking the expensive wine, it could be because the relevant areas of the brain have been misidentified.

A final alternative possibility is that the participants' immaterial souls liked the expensive wine better, but their brains didn't register a difference.

The Times piece discussed none of this.

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