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The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations
Does dropping a few brain-related words into an argument cause people to lose the capacity for critical thought?
As regular readers will be well aware, much of what I've covered on this blog has been about the use and abuse of the prefix "neuro" to mislead. You don't have to look far to see that most people seem to be pretty disconnected from the science of the brain. This becomes a problem once you realize how this allows us to be misled. Take, for example, the adverts for "brain training" games that stalk you on the internet with claims that don't even remotely hold water; or the fact that a laughable technique called "Brain Gym" that involves making children perform pointless exercises and is based on no evidence whatsoever continues to be widespread in schools across the world at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and has been used by as many as 39 percent of teachers in the UK. Drop a few brain-related words and it seems even teachers can lose the capacity for critical thought en masse.
In 2008, a paper titled "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations," struck a chord with me when it made the case that we can be suckered into judging bad psychological explanations as better than they really are if they are served with a side order of irrelevant neuroscience. Another paper published the same year suggested that just showing an image of the brain alongside articles describing fictitious neuroscience research (for example claiming that watching TV improves mathematical ability) resulted in people rating the standard of reasoning in the articles as higher.
In 2013 however, a paper was published that remains a strong contender for the award of best-named paper of all time: "The Seductive Allure of Seductive Allure." The paper pointed out flaws in both of the 2008 papers: The neuroscience explanations were longer and arguably added to the psychological explanations. It could be the case that more complicated-sounding, or seemingly better-explained explanations are simply more persuasive. If this were the case, this would be a rather less ground-breaking conclusion. This suggestion was posed way back in 2009 by the blogger Neuroskeptic. Furthermore, a systematic replication of the 2008 brain scan paper involving 10 experiments and a whopping 2,000 participants failed to find any evidence that the addition of a brain scan alone had any real impact on people; it seemed the "seductive allure of neuroscience explanations" was in tatters.
Soon the "Seductive Allure of Seductive Allure" debate was everywhere; even Vice got involved. The realization that simply adding pretty pictures of brains to an argument isn't enough to fool most people probably shouldn't have been so surprising. What seems to have been largely ignored however, is that the huge 2013 systematic replication, which was the centerpiece of the "Seductive Allure of Seductive Allure" case, in fact did replicate the original " Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations" finding: that bad neuroscience explanations (as opposed to images) are more convincing than psychological explanations alone. The authors of the replication offered up a plausible explanation for the failure of the brain images to persuade: "Why the disparity, then, between the trivial effects of a brain image and the more marked effects of neuroscience language? ... Perhaps, then, the persuasive influence of the brain image is small when people have already been swayed by the neuroscience language in the article."
Fast-forward to today and a new group of researchers have entered the fray, publishing a paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, in which the Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations is tested a little more rigorously. The researchers gave students descriptions of psychological phenomena that were either good explanations or circular explanations. The circular explanations simply restated the claim in a different way rather than providing any actual explanation. The researchers tested to see what happened if superfluous neuroscience information or images of brain scans were added into the mix. Crucially, to control for the neuroscience explanations being more seemingly complex, the researchers also added a "hard science" condition in which superfluous physics or genetics information (for example) was added to the psychological explanation. A superfluous social science condition was also added for good measure.
Like the earlier replication, the brain images alone had little effect, but the superfluous neuroscience explanations were once again found to be more convincing to the students. Crucially they were also found to be more convincing than the superfluous social science and the superfluous hard science explanations. The results also make clear that people are really very bad at spotting circular arguments in science in general — they are just particularly bad at it when the circular argument is glossed under a veneer of neuroscience:
This is a conclusion that I don't find surprising. I'm a firm believer that in some quarters of academia, in the words of Steven Pinker, some scholars "spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook." That superfluous neuroscience seems to be more alluring than other superfluous science makes perfect sense, when it is a subject that is seen as a black box by so many.
This is the point where you are probably expecting me to advocate more and better neuroscience education. But that's absolutely not what I think we need to solve this problem. The key problem here isn't people's knowledge of neuroscience; it's their failure to identify irrational arguments. You certainly could spot the flaws in the arguments made in these studies by becoming an expert on all things brain-related. It would be a far more efficient and likely a far more practical use of your time to develop the critical-thinking skills and skeptical mindset necessary to simply spot the errors of logic. A great starting point in this area is Stuart Sutherland's Irrationality, for a more extensive account see Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.
As I so enjoy discussing at length on this blog, the evidence that people seem to fail to apply basic critical thinking to claims made about the brain is all around us. What I find equally concerning and somewhat closely related is the causes and consequences of a culture of "academic bullshitting" in which academics can feel coerced into speaking in a language of pseudoacademia, a language that only differs from everyday English in that it is impenetrable to the naive observer — enclosing an argument in a black box where it cannot be dismantled without great effort. This problem affects all disciplines to some degree, psychology perhaps more than others — as I suggested in a feature I wrote recently with Jon Sutton for The Psychologist. Taking advantage of terminology from neuroscience is just one trick in the toolbox.
Fernandez-Duque D., Evans J., Christian C. & Hodges S.D. (2014). Superfluous neuroscience information makes explanations of psychological phenomena more appealing., Journal of cognitive neuroscience, PMID: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25390208
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.