Friday, 4 April 2008

Brain imaging: Old snake oil in new bottles?

In a previous post (Brain scan fails to support validity of ESP), I wrote about those clever Harvard neuroscientists who recently published a brain imaging experiment to find cerebral evidence of telepathy, but which produced no significant results and thereby, somehow, finally disproved the existence of ESP by finding nothing at all. This kind of story belies the perceived arbitration over reality given to the big science of prestigious academic institutions, which ends up reported in the media under some kind of magical veneer that those with the best equipment produce the biggest truth. In reality the claims of this research were just bad science - absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and all that – and this is just one (more) myopically conceived experiment and not the last word on the possibility of paranormal information transfer.

The logic of the ESP brain-imaging article is actually something more akin to what scientists call “magical thinking”, supposedly a kind of illogical associative thinking reserved for the mentally ill, the credulous, and the “primitive” (or in fact anyone who believes in the paranormal). The end result is an article setting to out to disqualify magic through science but which is itself actually propped up on more mumbo-jumbo than a voodoo alter, showing that the scientific elite in this case are actually just peddling cheap sideshow magic under the guise of science and using it to try and convince us that magic doesn’t exist. Oh, the irony.

Anyway, resonating nicely with this mini-rant is a paper just published by Deena Skolnick Weisberg (of Yale, incidentally), in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2008, 20:3, 470-477), entitled, The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Weisberg conducted a technologically unsophisticated social psychological experiment to show that people will generally assume that explanations supported by neuroscience are true and accurate, regardless of whether the informational content is actually nonsense or not. Meanwhile, ESP no longer officially exists...

The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) by 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgements of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.