A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Neuroskeptic Part 1 - Misunderstanding Neursocience

For those who don't know, Neuroskeptic is one of the more popular science bloggers in the world. He is a research-active British neuroscientist, who has been highlighting important findings, and criticizing public (and professional) misunderstandings of those findings for several years. He does this anonymously, and even the people in his home department do not know his identity. His blog-icon is what initially appears to be a stupid picture of a disembodied brain with two eye balls; though that is closer to what he looks like than you might think.

I'm going to assume he will be posting about his talk in the near future, but before he gets a chance, I'm going to scoop him a bit, at least by discussing what I thought was the highlight of his talk. The talk was in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Neuroscience and Society. It was worth the drive to listen to the talk and get to shake his hand, because once I had wiped the cerebral spinal fluid off with a wet-nap, our discussions covered many topics (hence the "Part 1" for this post). For now, I'll stick to discussing his formal talk, starting with a picture of the talk in progress:

Brain Rumors: 
Public (Mis)understanding of Neuroscience and Why It Matters.

Neuro argued that people, the general populace, were overly-interested in neuroscience (when compared to other sciences) for several reasons... some of which were invalid. That is, many people think neuroscience will be able to do things it just won't ever be able to do, such as definitively answer the "big questions" of philosophy. What interested me the most was his argument that people believe neuroscience will be magically wonderful because, they are taking it more seriously than the scientists!

He argued that neuroscientists have developed a lot of jargon and turns of phrase that everyone within the filed understands, but which dramatically oversell their findings if taken literally. Some of these problems are created by historic accident that was never corrected by the field, but other problems were created by the pressures put on neuroscietists by funding agencies and publishers, and occasionally by the press. For example, a study might argue that
Low activation in face-processing area confirms deficits in people with disorder X. 
To the public this means lots of things that it probably does not mean to the person who did study.
  1. The report will probably be taken to indicate that there is a "face area", a part of the brain that exclusively (and intrinsically) recognizes faces. The neuroscientists doesn't think that because they know damn well that said area lights up the fMRI on other tasks ("visual expertise area" might be a better label at this point), and also because they know that countless other brain areas are crucial for face recognition (at the least, a good chunk of the visual cortex). 
  2. The report might be taken to indicate that an intervention aimed at said brain area could fix the face recognition problem. This is the basis of large industries duping people out of their money with the promises of directly treating their brains. I suppose such treatments might be possible in the very, very, distant future, but they are not possible now, and they won't look anything like what today's shysters are selling.
  3. The report might be taken to prove that disorder X is real. Many laypeople think that the reality of a purported behavioral / psychological disorder is affirmed beyond doubt if differences between groups can be shown on a scan. Of course, the scientists knows that group differences appear for a variety of reasons, only one of which is that one party has a serious disorder. Plus, and I'll hit this point hard in a latter post, we already knew the groups brains were different if the groups were defined based on a known behavioral difference.   
The overall point (of that part of Neuro's talk) was that many of the misunderstandings people have of neuroscience are based on them taking reported results literally, rather than understanding them in the context of professional norms and publication pressures.

As my readers know, I think a lot of problems in psychology are caused by our loose use of---what should be---technical language. It is great to hear the same arguments being made in neuroscience, by a neuroscientist. At the end of the talk, a student asked a great question about who was likely to initiate a fix of the situation. In the next post will discuss Neuro's answer, and why it was a total cop out.

Also, to learn more about Neuro, and what it's like to live the double-life, check out the interview by UPenn's in house blogger.


  1. My true form revealed! I am not merely a brain with some eyes... I also have long neuronal projections and synaptic bulbs for fingers.

    Seriously though, that's a good summary of what I was saying. One point I would add is that people take neuroscience very seriously for the same reasons that neuroscientists are interested in the brain.

    e.g. the promise of a neuroscientific answer to the "big questions" is misleading if taken too far...but it also motivates many neuroscientists.

    In general, "the public" are not stupid, they are just enthusiastic, and prone to take what neuroscientists say at face value.

    1. An important point, because it shifts the responsibility for responsible reporting back where it belongs: on the neuroscientists.