The Neurological Turn

There’s been a something of a neuroscience fad going around the popular science world. A reasonable example that I found recently is Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and Biology of Belief, which claimed to show how the brain is set up to accept religion. This sounded compelling, but by the time I was a few pages in my natural skepticism kicked in. At that point I realized that if modern neuroscience can’t cure narcolepsy or find the source of epilepsy, then it probably can’t explain something as complicated as the human relationship with religion. The book was a couple of studies showing that sometimes Buddhist monks do interesting neurological things when they mediate. Everything after that consisted of increasingly absurd conjecture. And this sort of shenanigans is relatively common. The New York Times noted this trend and found a survey of this sort of “neurobollocks.”

A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.

This turn to neuroscience as a source of truth and credibility has been referred to as the “neurological turn,” similar to the linguistic turn. The problem, I think, boils down to confusion surrounding the fundamental complexity of neuroscience. Popular literature attaches all sorts of meaning to important brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which are part of many immensely complex processes. All the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease are caused by a loss of dopamine producing cells, from muscle cramps and tremors to altered cognition and mood disorders. And neuroscience is plagued by studies that use ambiguous brain scans and bad statistical analysis.

Enter the Neurodoubters, a community of neuroscience blogs that critically analyze the use of neuroscience in popular culture as well as the practice in academia. I’ve been reading several of these blogs for my own edification but they have recently gained some popularity due to the aforementioned New York Times article. And there are a lot of them (linkfest). Hopefully the popularity of neurocriticism will result in a healthier relationship between popular culture and neuroscience.

Further Links

The Neurocritic’s response to New York Times article.

The Neurocritic’s response to mainstreaming neurocriticism .

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