Neuroscience: Looking Beyond the Obvious

Illustration by Arthur Chiverton

I’m not the only critic warning about the dangers of finding the results you want in your research.

Anthony Gottlieb, writing for The Economist this week, notes that the young field of neuroscience may be leading us astray. Loads of stories in popular discourse make it appear that the science of brain scans can tell us something about human behavior.

Gottlieb uses the illuminating analogy that likens discoveries in neuroscience to looking for your lost car keys under the streetlamp.

You look under the lamp because that’s where the light is. Not because that’s where you lost your keys.

And just because we can use advanced technology to view the brain doesn’t necessarily mean that we know more about human behavior.

In fact, Gottlieb reports that an analysis of brain studies shows that in half the cases, the researchers massaged their results to fit their hypotheses: “over half the studies used faulty methods” that were “guaranteed to shift the correlations they had been looking for between mental activity and blips in parts of the brain.”

And just because you can see blips in the brain hardly predicts behavior. In fact, such results are probably not even useful.

Reminds me of Samuel Morton’s research on American Indian skulls and his faulty logic that skull size equated with intelligence.

For the full article see:

Artwork from The Economist, illustration credit Arthur Chiverton


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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