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Friday, October 31, 2008

Is THIS your best shot? A response to New Scientist's recent hit piece on non-materialist neuroscientists

A few days ago, a friend alerted me to an interesting development: In its Perspectives section, New Scientist - the National Enquirer of popular science magazines - had published a hit piece on the non-materialist neuroscientists, including Mario Beauregard, my lead author on The Spiritual Brain. ("Creationists declare war over the brain" Amanda Gefter, 22 October 2008)

Non-materialists, essentially, think that your mind really exists; it is not simply an illusion created by the buzz of neurons in your brain. In fact, your mind is one of the key factors that shape your brain. On the medical side, non-materialist neuroscientists use this fact to alleviate illnesses such as obsessive compulsive disorder and phobias. They have good evidence for their case, and that is addressed here in an introduction to a recent symposium at the UN in New York. This post, however, will focus on the hit piece.

For me, the New Scientist piece was a gift. I sometimes teach non-fiction news writing. And it struck me as an excellent teaching opportunity ("the structure and function of the irresponsible hit piece, unpacked"). Of course, I mean to discourage my students from investing time or energy in such enterprises.

This piece is especially useful for two reasons: As Beauregard's co-author, I happen to know about non-materialist neuroscience already. So I need no research project to uncover the misrepresentations. Second, this piece is a very conventional example of the "hit" genre. That means I don't need to keep stopping and saying, "But, students, please note that this particular feature is rare."

Best of all, if I unpack this story now for interested Mindful Hack readers, I can save time in June (my busiest month) by just dusting it off for Write! Canada. So, let's have a look.

Sections

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

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

3 Haul out the goblins that scared them before

4 Context reduces fear. So get rid of context

5 Finally, an idea! Wow, a real idea! But wait ...

6 Scare their pants back on again and send them out to raise hell about stuff they know nothing about

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

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