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Friday, October 31, 2008

1 Scare their pants off before they even start reading: The art of the panic headline

First, note the headline of Gefter's hit piece: Creationists declare war over the brain

The headline was chosen for its inflammatory value, not its information value. So far as I know, only one of the people mentioned in the piece (Angus Menuge) is a creationist, and the fact that he is one is irrelevant to the story.

[Update 2008 11 01: Angus Menuge has written to say that he is NOT a creationist*.]

Creationism attempts to square the accounts of the creation of the Earth and life found in scriptures and traditions with accounts based in current science. However, typical creationist concerns like the age of the Earth and the origin of life are not a focus of neuroscience. Nothing much would follow for neuroscience from the triumph of one hypothesis over another in these areas because neuroscience studies the human brain in real time in the present day. Nothing discovered about the past can override observations in the present.

The words "creationists" and "declare war" do serve a purpose, but the purpose is not to provide information. The purpose is to scare New Scientist readers and discourage careful thought among them.

The piece opens with a quotation by neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, author of The Mind and the Brain at a recent panel discussion:
YOU cannot overestimate," thundered psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, "how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You're gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about... how Darwin's explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it... I'm asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.
It's an effective opening because, to the New Scientist fan - usually a loyal foot soldier for materialism, Schwartz's words must sound like frightening heresy. Readers will be eager to read down to the part where someone reassures them that it's all lies and Schwartz is a suspicious or despicable figure.

Reality check: I can’t begin to keep up with all the news stories whose basic message is that the materialist paradigm is breaking down. Mario Beauregard and I devoted a good part of The Spiritual Brain to examining just a few of these areas (before moving on to a discussion of more viable approaches).

To cite two examples: It has become increasingly obvious that computers cannot think like people, and ramping up their computing speed is not really going to help. Second, chimpanzees do not think like people either, despite many efforts to demonstrate that they do. Thus, the puzzle of human consciousness is still called "the hard problem of consciousness."

Remarkably, the "hard" problem of human consciousness is not just another example of researchers angling for more grant money by inflating the importance of the question they are studying. In fact, in this case, the researchers are considerably underestimating the problem. If granting agencies knew how difficult the consciousness problem is, they might choose to allocate the money elsewhere.

Moving right along, we read,
Earlier Beauregard, a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Montreal, Canada, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, told the audience that the "battle" between "maverick" scientists like himself and those who "believe the mind is what the brain does" is a "cultural war".
Oh yes? Well, he did use the chopped series of words quoted here, but the original statement sounds very different.

For now, the New Scientist piece itself handily demonstrates Beauregard's point. Not that typical readers would be likely to notice. They will be offended by the very suggestion of a cultural war. A "war" would imply that there are two sides to the question, an assumption they will not wish to grant.

In any event, readers will assume - because they are not told otherwise - that Beauregard is himself an eager combatant. A modest amount of research would turn up a very different story. Non-materialist neuroscientists prefer to work in peace but are sometimes harassed by senior colleagues who view them and their findings as a threat. For example, regarding Beauregard's own work, as we relate in The Spiritual Brain,
... , with the grant received from the Metanexus Institute and John Templeton Foundation, we were expected to conduct a third study, a PET (positron emission tomography) study, on the nuns, in this case at the Brain Imaging Center of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI, the famous institute created by Wilder Penfi eld in the 1920s). The goal of the study was to measure serotonin (5-HT) synthesis capacity during the same conditions (baseline, control condition, mystical condition). The project was blocked by the PET Working Committee. We were given to understand that some committee members reacted violently to our submission. They thought that mystical states could not be studied scientifically (and they probably did not want the MNI to be associated with what they consider pseudoscience). We ended up using the money for another project in which we examine brain activity (with fMRI and QEEG) in NDErs who have been spiritually transformed by their NDEs. (p. 339, n. 32)
But that's nothing compared to the uproar that broke out when the Dalai Lama was scheduled to give the opening lecture at a 2005 neuroscience convention. Comments like this,
Neuroscience more than other disciplines is the science at the interface between modern philosophy and science. No opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world. — Neuroscientist Zvani Rossetti, opposing the Dalai Lama’s lecture (p. 255)
were often heard. So yes, that was a cultural war, and no, the Dalai Lama did not start it. He remained gracious throughout.

So our writer has now convinced our New Scientist readers that "creationists" have started a "war" over the brain. At this point, she needs to convince them that the evil plot is headed up by intelligent design think tank [cue evil music] the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

*[Re Angus Menuge and creationism: I had been relying on a generally reliable source for the information about his view, a source I will not use again. Here is Menuge's own comment: "Angus Menuge is a Christian apologist and a defender of Intelligent Design, and is a creationist in the sense that he believes God created the universe, but he has not sought to defend a specific reading of Genesis." So, to the best of my knowledge, no one whom hit piece author Amanda Gefter identifies as a creationist is in fact one.) ]

Next: 2 Reveal that a popular villain is behind it all (cue "evil" music)

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