This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

15Nov/10

The power (and danger) of phoney neuroscience

I know that I'm usually on here railing on about how awesome I think the neuroscience and scientific research is, so I thought I'd balance myself out a bit with a really interesting study on the ways in which neuroscience can lead people astray as well.

A group of researchers at Yale University were wondering whether or not the mere existence of neuroscientific data, regardless of whether that data was related at all to the argument at hand, would make listeners interpret a statement as more valid.  Like the good scientists they were, they devised an experiment to delve further into this question.

Essentially, there were two groups of people, ones who were given good explanations for a particular psychological phenomenon, and ones that were given a bad or incomplete explanation.  Furthermore, within each group, half were given explanations that included some kind of neuroscience component (brain imaging, etc.) that didn't really have anything to do with the statement being proposed.

The researchers used this experimental set up on three groups of people - those totally unfamiliar with neuroscience, those somewhat familiar with neuroscience (undergrads), and those who were very familiar with neuroscience (grads, post-docs, and professors).  Their theory was that including neuroscience information with an argument, whether or not it was applicable to the argument, would make those unfamiliar with neuroscience incorrectly think that the arguments were somehow "better" because of this data.

This is basically what they found.  While there was no effect of giving extra neuroscience information to highly-educated listeners, the medium- and no-education groups both considered the arguments to be more valid when presented with totally irrelevant neuroscience information.

It should be noted that everyone was able to correctly determine a good argument from a bad one, but the fact that irrelevant information played a role at all is unsettling at best.

Unfortunately, this speaks to a relatively common practice in our society that includes using fancy-looking science to back up completely insane claims.  It seems like every day you see another headline that links a very specific psychological phenomenon to a tiny point in the brain, when in reality we can make no such statement in good faith.

It's important that people realize that neuroscience information (or any scientific information) is not in-and-of-itself valid or correct or useful.  It is only legitimate, peer-reviewed research that can be accepted as true.

More generally, I urge everyone to take a skeptical approach to any argument that is presented to you, regardless of whether it comes from a science publication or some random person on the street.  Separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff  is what science does best when operating correctly, and we all need to take part in ensuring that the machine of empirical research is well-oiled and error-free.

via The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

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