Help, I’m a prisoner in a brain fiction factory

The Sunday Times has one of the most gullible neuroscience articles I’ve read in a very long time. While most mainstream press articles are happy to make a hash of one study at a time, this manages to misinterpret virtually every headline-grabbing neuroscience experiment from the last couple of years.

The article claims that neuroscience is much more advanced than we realise and sets out to demonstrate this by over-interpreting recent discoveries, padding the article with false information, and using fallacies to discuss the implications.

It’s full of howlers:

Then, in the 1980s, a range of new technologies began to emerge, including positron emission tomography (Pet) computerised axial tomography (Cat) and, perhaps the best known, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

PET was invented in the late 1960s / early 1970s, CAT was invented at virtually the same time, and fMRI was invented in the 1990s.

In a simplistic example, a scientist might show a picture of a scantily-clad woman to a man, and then see the parts of the brain associated with sex and lust lighting up as they consumed more oxygen. Meanwhile, the areas linked to reasoning and morality might go dark as they rapidly shut down.

I’m not sure whether “simplistic example” is a malapropism, a Freudian slip, or a grim admission of the the nonsense to come. Not only is the description of the technique completely misleading (all functional scans are comparisons between different situations, not just a measure of one reaction) but the example is completely bizarre.

The piece then goes on to suggest that neuromarketing gives a better idea how to market products (not one example to date), that brain scanning is a form of advanced lie detection (so advanced it doesn’t work very well) and that studies on the neuroscience of criminal behaviour (like writing crap brain articles) “suggest it could be wrong to hold such people responsible for their actions” (you wish).

I can’t face going through the rest of the examples because I keep weeping over my computer, but look out for the ‘this complex human attribute = this one brain area’ drivel, a profound confusion where brain activation is used to justify a behavioural or psychological conclusion, and the invention of the term “brainjacking” which is reported as if it’s already used.

I also noted that one of the quotes has just been lifted from other news reports.

Perhaps its only redeeming feature is that it could be a useful teaching aid if you’re giving a class on how neuroscience gets misrepresented in the media because it has at least virtually every type of slip-up in one handy place.

Link to ropey Sunday Times article.

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 5, 2009 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Funny posting. Funny because it is painfully close to home. The difference between misrepresentation of science and accurate but unflattering representation can be quite slight when it comes to clinical brain imaging research. That is not to say that clinical brain imagers are bad scientists. It is a tough field. The strong aspects of the science, the engineering, intersect with the less strong aspects, cognitive, social, or affective psychology.

  2. Posted May 5, 2009 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    That sort of reporting is worse than no reporting at all.

  3. PJ
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    My understanding is that, unlike fMRI, you can analyse the raw PET data without necessarily subtracting a resting/comparison condition.


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