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Wise, insightful words on the perils of popularizing neuroscience

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

We have blogged about neuro-talk in the past. Neuro-talk is what we call use of the science to create misleading brain myths or make ungrounded leaps from the research to unjustifiable conclusions. From past post Seduction by neuroscience: Resisting the allure:

Neuro-talk is popular these days. You can read about neuro-this and neuro-that. Much extrapolation is being done from the findings of neuroscience; often the extrapolation is not warranted or accurate. We are aware of the temptation to make leaps and of the allure of the science. Here at BonP, accuracy as we apply neuroscience to conflict resolution will be of highest priority. When we first began writing articles together, Jeff and I discussed the importance, when talking about the mind and the brain, of not straying into the field of conjecture — unless any guess we make is clearly tagged as just that: a guess.

Toward the end of warning people about over- and mis-statements about what neuroscience has shown, I am recommending The Perils of Popularising Science, a post by Jason Zevin, a cognitive neuroscientist. Zevin writes at More Intelligent Life:

[M]ost of what is known is more complicated than I’m able to understand–much less explain to a general audience. And at least some of what I know about any topic in neuroscience is liable to have been discredited by a recent article in Science or Nature. This makes me cautious whenever anyone turns to me for an authoritative opinion on anything regarding the brain.

This is why it is always so disorienting to talk to people who have just read or are reading anything by Steven Pinker (such as his recent piece "The Moral Instinct" in the New York Times Magazine). Often, these people know all kinds of amazing things–including things I’m pretty sure aren’t true.  . . .   The problem is that our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.

As scientists, we learn to live with the fact that much of our work is highly subjective. There is actually very little that any two people who call themselves "cognitive neuroscientists" are guaranteed to agree on. Mostly we make progress by choosing the side of an argument that seems most plausible given our pre-theoretical commitments, and trying to provide data that would convince someone starting from the other side.

Remember Zevin’s cautionary words next time you read a conclusion about what neuroscience tells us about the behavior of human beings.

Note (added January 25, 2008, 7:19 PM Mountain): On a related note, here’s an excerpt from a review of The Body Has a Mind of Its Own at The Quarterly Conversation:

There’s plenty of good science in The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, but as the authors acknowledge, "certain details and caveats that a specialist would consider vital have been condensed, glossed over, or shoehorned into metaphors."

. . .

How are we, as readers, to know when the science ends and the guessing begins?

Certainly not by looking up the Blakeslee’s sources: they don’t cite them. Sure, they quote neuroscientists, psychologists, and doctors in the text, but they don’t ever explain when a quotation is backed by peer-reviewed research and when it’s merely a hunch.


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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