Field of Science

Snake oil and Neuroscience

Readers of this blog know how I feel about neuroscience reporting (here, here and here). One consistent problem is that reporters enthusiastically relate findings that involve brain scans, while ignoring the original and groundbreaking behavioral work.

A truism in psychology, however, is to never trust your impressions of a situation. So often our intuitions (e.g., the average American wouldn't torture an innocent bystander to death just because someone in a lab coat told them to) turn out to be completely incorrect. So I was very happy to hear that a group at Yale actually tested the hypothesis that people will believe basic behavioral findings more (like the existence of cognitive dissonance) more if brain-related words are mentioned.

In brief, it appears that the average non-expert does, in fact, believe it more if there is a picture of the brain somewhere. However, students who have taken an introductory neuroscience class are not only immune to this effect, but they actually find explanations that include references to brain anatomy less compelling. So perhaps this research explains not only why the average reader (and reporter) likes the typical neuroscience reportage as why people like myself (and Dan Gilbert) dislike it.

Cognitive Daily has an excellent in-depth description of the article here.

Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Rawson, .J., Gray, J.R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477.


Yisrael said...

I tend to agree with your sentiments on brain imaging yet at the same time I think that the tools involved have potential. If we don't use them for research how will we find their limitations and push to develop them further. The microscope has come a long way, as have most tools we humans use. We just need to be aware of the method's limitations.

josh said...

Hi yisroel,

I absolutely agree that neuroimaging is a useful too. I've actually used neuroimaging in the past and intend to use it more in the future. The question is what it is useful for. Neuroimaging studies that tell us anything about behavior are few and far between. What the magnet typically helps with is understanding how that behavior arises from the actions of the brain. However, when the media reports the story, the tend to focus on the behavior -- which the neuroimaging tells us very little about.