Between neurohype and neuroskepticism

The importance of neuronuance.

by Bethany Brookshire                  

This meat is also mind.

This meat is also mind.

The media love to overhype neuroscience. And I understand the appeal. I went into neuroscience because the brain is a truly fascinating place, meat that somehow results in human behaviors, from drug addiction to love to just keeping upright. It is absolutely mindblowingly amazing that I am typing at you right now. I am thinking thoughts in a context (context: mind blown #1) of things I have read and processed (language: mind blown #2), and I am then translating those thoughts from speech to hundreds of tiny motor movements as I type (typing: mind blown #3). And then I will post this on a piece of software that has been invented and to which people around the world have access. All because of the human brain.

But the millions of things our brains can do and the millions of ways in which our brains screw up are hard to understand (in fact, we don’t understand most of them) and hard to explain. Yet it’s so attractive to want to break it down, simplify. “This part of the brain is your left hand,” and “this part of the brain is love,” and “if you have a larger than normal brain area X, you will become a psychopath.” But it’s never been that simple. Trying to take the human brain down to soundbites was only going to come back to bite us, and it has: More and more studies have shown, loud and clear, just how over-simplified it all has been.

And now the backlash against neuroscience, the field I love, has arrived. Sadly, it didn’t come soon enough, and now we have to deal with the hangover effects of “neurodrinks.” And do we have to call the hype “neuromania“?! Ugh. There are neuroskeptical books, like A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, and Brainwashed, the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Hard-working skeptical bloggers, like Neuroskeptic, Neurocritic, and Neurobollocks, are finally getting the attention they deserve, and that’s important. It is vital for us to acknowledge our failures and mistakes, to let the scientific record correct itself. Without the corrections, we can’t move toward the facts. We don’t need to know only what a study found but also to understand the nuance of many scientific studies, both for their own information (neurodrinks are a waste of money at best, friends), and to help people understand what it is we do and why we do it.

But with all of the neuroskepticism over all of the neurohype, people are starting to become neurojaded (not to mention sick of people putting “neuro-” in front of everything). Skepticism would encourage us to “question everything”, and as a proud skeptic myself, I agree. But it’s one thing to question, to ask for details of method and context, and another to use the name of “neuroskepticism” to dismiss neuroscience all together. David Brooks, for example, seems to want to use the neuroskepticism to go all the way back to “the brain is not the mind.” After all, he seems to suggest, if some studies are overhyped, or if some of them are wrong, well, it’s clear we know nothing about the brain, anyway! If we have no easy way to explain behaviors in the context of the brain, well then, the mind and brain must not be in tune after all.

The media used to overhype neuroscience, and now they overhype neuroskepticism. After all, who doesn’t love to watch a fight? But don’t throw out the brain with the bathwater.

Here’s the thing: There is bad neuroscience, because there is bad science, period. Not because there really is mind–brain dualism (that is so 1641). Not because all neuroscientists are out there to fool you. Not because all neuroscientists are secretly idiots with no idea what they are doing. Not because everyone who writes about neuroscience spoonfeeds simplistic interpretations twisted to fit a narrative.

There is bad neuroscience, just like there is good neuroscience. Because we the people are the ones who do the science. People who, though often smart enough, are not robots. Who, though they try to be logical, really do sometimes fall in love with their own hypotheses. Who will sometimes find what they are looking for and stop there, rather than logically trying to disprove their own hypothesis over and over and over. And some who, sadly, will fool with data to get ahead. People make mistakes, sometimes stupid ones, so sometimes, the science is mistaken or possibly even stupid.

We do science with the techniques at hand, asking the questions we want to answer. Techniques change and get better. Every answer brings new questions. As it turns out, science is really a lot of looking for your keys where the light is. Sometimes, you find the wrong keys, but you try and shove them into the lock anyway. But sometimes you really do find the right keys, or you make up a new technique to yield more light, giving you more area to view.

As with all science, some of the best neuroscience is well controlled, carefully performed, and wildly interesting. The vast majority of neuroscience has nothing to do with brain scans, as eye-catching as they are. Instead, there are models of obsessive-compulsive disorder in mice, studies of empathy in patients with Alzheimer’s, studies of why drugs like ketamine might help with depression, and how genetically identical individuals show different behaviors. Every study, of course, has its weaknesses. No one is perfect, and no one has the perfect tools. But each of these studies also has strengths: careful controls, different ways to look at each question, and careful interpretation of the findings, making sure that we don’t extrapolate too much from the results. Those are keystones of good, cautious scientific practice. Throwing out everything is no more cautious or a solution to the problems of neurohype than over-interpretation is.

What is the difference between the neurohype and these studies? Not much, scientifically. Not all overhyped studies are bad (most aren’t), they are just a lot more limited in what they can prove than you might think. No, the difference is often not in the science … it’s in the reporting. The studies I linked above cover the limitations of the results as well as what they found. Some describe the methods so people know what was done. They stick to what the scientists found and make it clear that any hypotheses beyond the findings are just that: hypotheses, things still to be proven or unproven. While bad neuroscience can make neurohype, what mostly accounts for neurohype is bad neuroreporting.

And we the people are the ones doing that reporting. As with scientists, great science writers are out there, many of them covering neuroscience. They don’t just take apart bad studies (though that’s an incredibly valuable thing to do) but they also lift good stories up, the ones that might not have gotten all the attention in the beginning. The writers do in-depth reporting and work to truly understand the science, the good and bad points, to get researchers unconnected to the study to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. Seek out these writers. When you search for scientific information on the internet, look for that kind of balance, that kind of measured response.

What we need to see is better, balanced science communication, with the good and the bad of science, and not the neurohype. Like the good science and scientists, the good writing and good writers are out there. We the people just need identify them and tell others how to find them. Reading them and sharing their good science writing helps you not only avoid neurohype but also promote balanced, thoughtful science writing.  After all, David Brooks’ opinions notwithstanding, we really are all just neuro-interested people whose brains are our minds. Let’s apply a little neuronuance when we use them.

Looking for some good neuroscience writing? Start with these:

[Bethany Brookshire recently finished a postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She is the guest Editor of the Open Laboratory Anthology of Science Blogging, 2009, and the winner of the Society for Neuroscience Next Generation Award and the Three Quarks Daily Science Writing Award, among others. She blogs at Scientific American at The Scicurious Brain, and at Scientopia at Neurotic Physiology. You can follow her on Twitter @scicurious.]

[Image copyright, Double X Science.]

16 thoughts on “Between neurohype and neuroskepticism

  1. I would also say part of the reason for neurohype is that’s sometimes written by non-neuroscientists (J Lehrer take a bow)
    Link to Neuroskeptic?

  2. Well written and reasonable.
    i.e. non marketable. Talking to the brain about the brain is problematic. An instrument that can only run on consistent narrative is little suited to a life without it.
    I sense humility, I hope it doesn’t bury you.

  3. Is the subject matter of neuroscience objective behavior or subjective experience?

  4. Pingback: Can we get some neuro-nuance? | Neurotic Physiology

  5. This old canard of the difficulty of “using the brain to analyze the brain” is silly. We are made of atoms, yet we investigate atoms. Yet nobody complains.

    Neuroscience is a hard challenge, and a newer discipline. Ideas rise and fall. In the long run, better experiments and concepts lead to advances. We’re working on it!

    Sam Wang, Princeton University

  6. Pingback: Descartes Was Not A Neuroscientist | The Penn Ave Post

  7. I think your stance demonstrates exactly the problem I have with neuroscience. I take no issue with the actual practice of neuroscience, but rather with individuals within and outside the field who feel the need to evangelize for the science in a manner that is not epistemologically defensible. Writing blog posts will do absolutely nothing in the service of finding a functional, brain state model of consciousness, solving the qualia problem or falsifying dualism. My recommendation to neuroscientists is that they keep their heads down, keep crunching the data, tone down the enthusiasm over the fMRI as an investigative tool, and leave the philosophy of mind to the philosophers.

  8. As I understand it, you divide the accusations against neuroscience into two groups: the accusations that particular studies—or, more often, the popular reports of those studies—are oversimplified, overreaching, or (as you put it) “mistaken or possibly even stupid”; and the accusation that the entire field is systematically wrongheaded because it rejects mind-body dualism. And you then grant the validity of (some of) the accusations in the first group and reject the validity of second accusation.

    I agree with you about both kinds of accusation—but not because I agree with your contemptuous dismissal of mind-body dualism. It seems to me (and I speak here as an outsider) that neuroscience is not, as the second accusation alleges, committed to any particular view about the relation between the mind and the body—so if the field is systematically wrongheaded, it isn’t (as that accusation claims) because of any such view. As far as I can tell, you can be a neuroscientist and at the same time believe—as Descartes did—that brain states cause mental states. Indeed, the most natural interpretation of some of the best work in neuroscience is that it discovers these causal relationships between brain and mind. So if you find David Brooks’s claim that “the brain is not the mind” laughable, that’s fine—but your assessment is a philosophical, rather than a neuroscientific, one.

    If you disagree—if you think that neuroscience has disproven, or even rendered doubtful, Descartes’ view that the brain causes our mental life—then I invite you to cite the neuroscientific studies that you take to contain that evidence. Until then, I am going to continue to think that Cartesian mind-body dualism is “so 1641” in exactly the same way in which relativity theory is “so 1905”.

  9. Alexi, is the problem, then with the SCIENCE? Or with the evangelizing? I would say it’s the latter.

    I do think it’s important that we DO explain what neuroscience can do to the public, what we’ve found, and what we think it means. After all, most neuroscience is funded by taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health. Don’t you want to know where the money is going and what it’s doing? I think you have a right to know that. Keeping our heads down will not justify our existence. It’s just that we need to be careful to not over-report, or under-report our findings. To explain where they fit in context, and that science is a process.

  10. Scicurious: I think the problem lies with the evangelizing; specifically with the brand of evangelizing that makes claims the exceed the epistemological bounds of what science can tell us. For instance, while I don’t believe in mind/body dualism, claiming anything along the lines of “This meat is also mind” is a fundamentally unscientific. There is a certain irony in such a statement appearing in a post that purports to be a defense of science.

  11. Why is it unscientific to claim that there is a purely physical basis for our mental processes?

  12. Given that we exist in the physical universe, any phenomena occurring within the universe would have to be physical. The statement reduces to a tautology, and it’s not really falsifiable, because “physical” is an inexact phrase.

  13. Scicurious..I commend you on humbly providing a balanced approach to an ever widening understanding of what Neuroscience is and what is isn’t…it is such a young science, just as nutrition is, and it tends to be presented, by some scientists as well as non-scientists, with half-truths and interpretations for the benefit of journalistic exhuberance. Tautological or not, I am no expert in how that is determined, but it seems to me that, just because one cannot definitively answer the “falsifiable”, neuroscientists should not continue to debate the role and merits of the functions and purpose of Neuroscience.

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