The New York Times wees itself in public

The New York Times has just pissed its neuroscientific pants in public and is now running round the streets announcing the fact in an op-ed that could as easily been titled ‘Smell my wee!’

The piece is written by Martin Lindström, famous for writing the ‘neuromarketing’ best-seller Buyology, but infamous for not making any of his data or studies public.

In fact, despite constantly mentioning the astounding conclusions from numerous brain imaging studies he was run, not one has appeared in the scientific literature.

But even without knowing about the reliability data or the quality of the analysis, it’s easy to see that he’s talking through his hat because the interpretations are so over-the-top that they are actually beyond what is possible with brain imaging science.

The piece is full of nonsense of various sorts.

I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive…

In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.

Actually, this is known as bullshit because synesthesia is where a conscious sensory experience in one sensory domain produces a conscious experience in another.

In other words, synesthesia is defined by the experiences that someone has, not where brain activity shows up.

The fact that brain activity occurs in an area previously linked to a different function does not mean it is being used for that function or that the person is having a related conscious experience.

If this is not entirely clear, think of it like this. Imagine, for the first time in your life, you just heard the sound of a guitar being played as part of a pop song. You’d be a bit daft if every time you heard guitar chords you told people that the music must be a pop song. After all, there’s a guitar in it, right?

Clearly, this is ridiculous because the guitar is an instrument that appears in lots of musical styles but Lindström is doing the neuroscience equivalent of over-interpreting guitar sounds throughout his terrible article.

He starts going on about how activation in the insula, detected in his privately conducted otherwise unknown study, means the person is experiencing love for their iPhone because insula activity has previously been linked to love.

The trouble is, as neuroimaging researcher Russ Poldrack just pointed out, it is one of the most common brain areas that turns up in fMRI studies and appears in about a third of imaging studies no matter what is being studied. In other words, it’s linked to just about every experience and behaviour you can think of.

In fact, it is probably most famous, not for its association with love, but for its association with digust, but Lindstrom apparently decided to avoid this particular interpretation.

This is just one example among many and if you want a breakdown of why the article really is full of crap, I recommend neuroscientist Tal Yarkoni’s point-by-point analysis and facepalm jamboree.

In fact, the op-ed has annoyed so many people there is now a letter to the editor signed by just about every big name in fMRI research on its way to the New York Times in an attempt to open the windows and get rid of that uncomfortable smell.

Link to NYT pissing itself in public.
Link to Tal Yarkoni’s excellent mopping up exercise.

18 thoughts on “The New York Times wees itself in public”

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  2. I don’t know. I kind of feel bad for the guy that everyone’s piling on. I know – there’s harm done when science is mischaracterized in the popular press. But, jeez, would someone go after whoever it was that told people we only use 1% of the human brain? In many areas of science, I don’t know enough to detect bad science reporting – but in my area (dopamine and behavior) I can tell you that most articles in the popular press (including the NY Times) are pretty bad. I just kind of expect that in the popular press. I think you guys (especially those that co-signed the op-ed piece, some of whom I know personally) are really going to put the fear of god into science writers. Maybe that’s a good thing. I just feel bad for the guy.

    1. Jon, he’s not a science writer getting things wrong. He’s a snake oil salesman. He deserves what he gets.

  3. I’m not even a scientist and the bit about “hearing” an iphone when you only saw video of it vibrating made me cringe. We “see” and “hear” things all the time that are related to something we are really hearing or seeing and this isn’t unusual. When you read you can “hear” a voice talking, when you listen to a podcast you can “see” the action taking place, and so on. These things have not only nothing to do with synesthesia they have to do with addiction either, it’s something that happens all the time because we are imaginative creatures who have brains that like to fill in the sensory gaps.

  4. As someone who runs a company that tries to responsibly and pragmatically teach and apply brain science findings to businesses, these unsubstantiated self-promotion vehicles from guys like Lindstrom make me incredibly frustrated. These types of inductive ‘neuromarketing’ sound bytes are far too common. I imagine that had his experiment been focused on the recently-discontinued Microsoft Zune, the insula would have suddenly been associated with disgust again.

    As for The Times, at least it’s an Op-Ed and not in the Science section. I think it’s fair to say we’ve all seen bigger misinterpretations and omissions of data in other opinion pieces.

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