Monday, July 07, 2008

Neuroscience: If it sounds unbelievable, don't believe it

And when in doubt, doubt.

Over at Brains on Purpose, Stephanie West Allen has been discussing the way some people use neuroscience principles in none-too-credible ways:

Lots of pseudoscience being tossed around these days, sometimes by people you might likely assign credibility. Last month, I attended a talk by George Lakoff about his new book The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain and was appalled at how he used the science. After reading an article "Mind Games" (The National), I knew I was not alone. Jeremy Freeman writes:

"In a typical argument, Lakoff starts by describing a fairly well-established neuro-scientific theory and then generalises it to apply to a highly abstract and unstudied context. That simply does not work in neuroscience. One of the central challenges of studying the brain is that an understanding at a particular level of analysis does not always translate to others. A theory about learning at the level of individual neurons may or may not apply to the learning of complex metaphorical relationships. A theory about how the brain binds simple visual features into complex objects may or may not apply to the way it binds simple emotional experiences into complex narratives. In making these leaps, Lakoff reveals himself as someone distinctly out of touch with neuroscience."

Unfortunately I see all too much of that leaping from neuroscience to the abstract. The leapers say something like this: "Well, we know this about the brain so we must know that about how businesses run or what employees need." Some of the leaps are astounding.

For my money, nothing beats the "God Helmet" that Mario and I discuss in Chapter 4 of The Spiritual Brain. But people who pretend to know how your brain is organized - if you would vote for Schmeazle versus Schmoe - are giving the hilarious Helmet some serious competition.

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