Friday, November 13, 2009

Neuroskepticism - a breath of fresh air from New Humanist - and maybe more legal safety too?

Neuroscience is, unfortunately, increasingly taken over by what I often describe as neurobullshipping. You know, neuroeconomics,, neurolaw ... It basically amounts to determining which regions of the brains of carefully chosen subjects light up when certain propositions are introduced.

Relief at last!

Here, at New Humanist, Raymond Tallis rallies the neuroskeptics ("Neurotrash", Volume 124, Issue 6, November/December 2009). 'Bout time someone did, I'd say. What's really good is that it comes from an unexpected quarter, at least for me.

He writes,
Hardly a day passes without yet another breathless declaration in the popular press about the relevance of neuroscientific findings to everyday life. The articles are usually accompanied by a picture of a brain scan in pixel-busting Technicolor and are frequently connected to references to new disciplines with the prefix “neuro-”. Neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology are encroaching on what was previously the preserve of the humanities. Even philosophers – who should know better, being trained one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of “Exp-phi” or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages have embraced “neuro-ethics”, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s moral intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classic dilemmas. Benjamin Libet’s experiments on decisions to act and the work on mirror neurons (observed directly in monkeys but only inferred, and still contested, in humans) have been ludicrously over-interpreted to demonstrate respectively that our brains call the shots (and we do not have free will) and to point to a neural basis for empathy.
Yes, pop neuroscience is beginning to sound more like "evolutionary" psychology all the time.

Responding to Tallis's article's title, "Neurotrash", I wrote to friends to say, more or less,
What we need is a really big neuro-trash can.

The result of all this nonsense is that neuroscience gets discredited when it is, used appropriately, an immense help in medicine.

Remember, it was neuroscience that established that stroke victims were losing use of limbs through learned helplessness, not irreversible brain damage. Jeffrey Schwartz, Vince Paquette, Mario Beauregard and others have also demonstrated that non-drug, non-invasive treatments of mental disorders actually work - especially important for those disorders that cannot be effectively treated by drugs or surgery. (I am sure there are others whose work I do not know.)

Here's what I know for sure: I remember the rows on rows of beds in the chronic care hospital I used to volunteer at in the 1960s. Compare that to the much more favourable prospects brought about by the Decade of the Brain (1990s)! But it wasn't easy. One neuroscientist all but lost his career introducing the "learned helplessness" concept (why stroke patients, in many cases, lost the use of limbs through simple non-use). Only neuroscience could really have uncovered that.

That’s the real story, and Tallis talks about it. We should stick to it.

It’s also why I always say neuroscience should stay close to medicine and far from silliness - like which area of the brain lights up if a woman decides to buy the flaming yellow pants with movie star decals instead of the quiet brown pair*.

Seriously, however, in the justice system, neuroscience, inappropriately used, could be quite dangerous. Cf neurolaw.

If we can’t convict an alleged perpetrator of a crime on the external evidence, we should not be trying to scan his brain.

Who cares what that guy thinks anyway?

It’s not a crime around here to think, only to act in a way that is outside the law. If the prosecution can't prove he did it, then ... they can't make their case, and that's just too bad for them.
And, as I like to say, if you don't like English Common Law (= whose basic principle is that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty), please live in some jurisdiction where no one has ever heard of it. We like it here.

In the meantime, enough with this neurolaw stuff.

(*The Unforgivably Bad Taste region, maybe? Wonder where it is? Not many women could make that work.)