Thursday, December 20, 2007

Selling brain science... Neurorealism

Matthew Hutson makes some good points in his brief comments on all those pretty brain imaging graphics you see in this MindBlog as well the daily press:
You’ve seen the headlines: This Is Your Brain on Politics. Or God. Or Super Bowl Ads. And they’re always accompanied by pictures of brains dotted with seemingly significant splotches of color. Now some scientists have seen enough. We’re like moths, they say, lured by the flickering lights of neuroimaging — and uncritically accepting of conclusions drawn from it.

A paper published online in September by the journal Cognition shows that assertions about psychology — even implausible ones like “watching television improved math skills” — seem much more believable to laypeople when accompanied by images from brain scans. And a paper accepted for publication by The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience demonstrates that adding even an extraneous reference to the brain to a bad explanation of human behavior makes the explanation seem much more satisfying to nonexperts.

Eric Racine, a bioethicist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, coined the word neurorealism to describe this form of credulousness. In an article called “fMRI in the Public Eye,” he and two colleagues cited a Boston Globe article about how high-fat foods activate reward centers in the brain. The Globe headline: “Fat Really Does Bring Pleasure.” Couldn’t we have proved that with a slice of pie and a piece of paper with a check box on it?

The way conclusions from cognitive neuroscience studies are reported in the popular press, “they don’t necessarily tell us anything we couldn’t have found out without using a brain scanner,” says Deena Weisberg, an author of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience paper. “It just looks more believable now that we have the pretty pictures.”

Racine says he is particularly troubled by the thought of crude or unscrupulous applications of this young science to the diagnosis of psychiatric conditions, the evaluation of educational programs and the assessment of defendants in criminal trials. Drawing inferences from the data requires several degrees of analysis and interpretation, he says, and treating neuroimaging as a mind-reading technique “would be adding extra scientific credibility that is not necessarily warranted.”

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