Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Neuroscience: Who do voodoo? You do, apparently (you might if you are a neuroscience researcher) - another paper says so

In "It's those Voodoo correlations again ... brain imagers accused of 'double dipping'", the British Psychological Society's Research Digest Blog reports,
This time there's no explicit naming and shaming, and the title may not be as colourful, but a new study out today in prestige journal Nature Neuroscience, echoes many of the same concerns voiced earlier this year in the leaked paper "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience" (since renamed as "Puzzlingly High Correlations ...").

And the new paper's implications are surely just as profound for the cognitive neuroscience community. Nikolaus Kriegeskorte and colleagues analysed all the fMRI studies published in Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron and Journal of Neuroscience, in 2008, and found that 42 per cent of these 134 papers were guilty of performing at least one non-independent selective analysis - what Kriegeskorte's team dub "double dipping".

This is the procedure, also condemned by the Voodoo paper, in which researchers first perform an all-over analysis to find a brain region(s) that responds to the condition of interest, before going on to test their hypothesis on data collected in just that brain region. The cardinal sin is that the same data are used in both stages.

A similarly flawed approach can be seen in brain imaging studies that claim to be able to discern a presented stimulus from patterns of activity recorded in a given brain area. These are the kind of studies that lead to "mind reading" headlines in the popular press. In this case, the alleged statistical crime is to use the same data for the training phase of pattern extraction and the subsequent hypothesis testing phase.
Read the rest here.

Far from wanting to dump on neuroscience research, I see this as an opportunity for housecleaning.

People should not be doing neuroscience on subjects like "why women love to shop" or "why anyone would vote for Sarah Palin."

The sheer weight of cultural baggage pretty much guarantees that most such research will be a waste of time. You can learn more about women's shopping preferences by studying their charge card bills in relation to a given economic climate than by studying their brains. And if you want to know why some Americans voted for Sarah Palin, well, ask them. Chances are, the reasons they give you will be reliable.

I myself believe that neuroscience should stay anchored in medicine, and similarly practical projects.


Subversive Thinking responds to Mesner review of The Spiritual Brain

Jime Sanaka kindly writes to say:
I wrote in my blog a long reply to Doug Mesner's uncharitable review of your book Any feedback or comments would be much appreciated.
Sanaka has this episode in mind. He writes,
(Remember that Mesner's review was written for the Skeptic Magazine; thus, his rhetorical tactics explained in this post makes full sense if you keep in mind to what audience his review is presented to. He's trying to reach the audience of that magazine and prevent the readers to actually read the book. Given that most of the readers of that magazine are materialistic atheists or agnostics, and many of them openly hostile to religion, Mesner's rhetorical strategy to discredit the book associating it with creationism and religion will work for that audience)

Note that Mesner quoted part of the information in the inside flap of the book (an information likely added by the publisher, not by the authors; omitting this possibility, Mesner uses such information to cast doubts about the authors' intellectual honesty).
Sanaka is certainly correct about that. Authors have very little to say, usually, about the promotional copy written for their book, beyond correcting the most basic errors of fact. I have been formally advised by literary coaches to be cautious about bugging the publicist about anything else, because publishers' staff can lose interest in a book whose authors are a pain to work with.

Anyway, you are quite right: If someone wants to review a book, positively or negatively, it is best to focus on what the authors say in their own words, not what the publicist says.

For example, for the record, I am not Denis Leary (a man) and do not have a degree from MIT, as some have claimed on the Internet. I have an honours degree in English Language and Literature from Sir Wilfred Laurier University ('71). That's the level at which I have the right to protest what is said about me.

My main complaint about the approach of the Skeptics at Skeptic Magazine is that, so far as I can see, they major in one-way skepticism. They are skeptical about some things, but not others. So there is no internal check for their own biases.

For example, faced with a story about healing through prayer, they would immediately seek to debunk it, irrespective of evidence.

As a Catholic, I believe that healing through prayer happens - but that, of course, does not require me to believe every such story I hear - or even most of them. Mine is a two-way skepticism about such matters.

Again, thanks much, Mr. Sanaka, and by the way, your English is very good.

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