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Monday, April 06, 2009

Neuroscience: Separating the wheat from the laugh

In an article that attempts to separate the wheat from the laugh (oops, that should be "chaff", right?), Elizabeth Landau, at Neuromill, rags the endlessly diverting pop neuroscience of our time.

Men, they tell us, treat bikini-clad women as "objects." You mean, objects like soup tureens and smoke detectors?

NO. It turns out that they means "sex objects" - something to have non-personal sex with. Well ... oh my stars, what a revelation ... who would ever have imagined!

She writes,
Thankfully a bad neurojournalism spotter gearing up for Mardi Gras was alert! We didn't catch the talk inspiring CNN at AAAS (the neurocurmudgeons were too busy being scared witless by the climate scientists) but we hope the original source is less muddled than the news story. We start with "women as objects" and then morph into "sexy women as goals" and then something about "action." Look, don't get us wrong -- we don't like the idea of humans being objectified for any reason in any context. But neither can we defend shoddy science just because we might have warm and fuzzy feelings for the findings.
Now in that last sentence, Landau captures the problem beautifully. Too many people will welcome the findings if they support what they already believe, without asking the obvious question: How did these people arrive at this view? Through any reasonable process of dissecting evidence?

And by the way, Neuromill is definitely a site to watch. This is from its About Us:

Welcome to the Neurojournalism Mill! The site dedicated to sifting the wheat from the chaff of popular media reporting on news about the brain. Regular readers of Bad Neurojournalism will find our usual bad-tempered neurocurmudgeonly musings, including the BNJ archives, in Chaff.

In Wheat, the neurocurmudgeons will grudgingly acknowledge (only kidding, we are delighted when we have the opportunity to say something positive) articles and newstories that make a superior effor to "get it right". By "getting it right" we do not mean just getting the basic facts correct - we mean covering brain science with a high degree of integrity, sensitivity, and sophistication so that the reader is genuinely informed.

To be considered Chaff, the article must demonstrate one (or more than one) of the
following flaws:

- seriously misrepresents the original science
- covers research of dubious value
- wildly extrapolates the reported findings
- presents an overly simplistic interpretation of a complex finding

So, just imagine, even more people are noticing the nonsense and commenting now.

Hey, did I die and somehow go to heaven - no?

Okay, so it's not quite that good: Maybe I can someday retire, and write thrillers, because not all the young people are dumb after all.

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