Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the Pornography of Bogus Science

Alissa Quart has a wonderful op-ed piece in today's edition of The New York Times. The title is "Neuroscience: Under Attack." The crux of the title is that the study of neuroscience by qualified and competent practitioners is being undermined by writers to peddle their wares to pop culture and therefore do not even deserve the be called journalists in any professional sense of that term. Quart is not shy about naming names: Naomi Wolf for Vagina, Chris Mooney for The Republican Brain, Jonah Lehrer for Imagine: How Creativity Works, and, of course, Malcolm Gladwell, the undisputed master of drawing unwarranted conclusions from mountains of anecdotal data.

I particularly like the way Quart has assigned a label to this particular genre of writing about neuroscience. She calls is "brain porn." She even has a nice one-sentence characterization of the category:
Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.
Mind you, Stephen Colbert already gave us the noun "truthiness;" but I much prefer the pornographic connotation.

If Quart had been given more column inches, however, she might have point out that neuroscience was hardly the first scientific discipline to be so undermined. Think of all the ways in which genome research got distorted into equally distorted speculations about genes far too bogus to be dignified with the label "hypothesis." I was beginning to think that Richard Lewontin would have to spend the rest of his life straightening out the misconceptions of those searching for a "gene for creativity," a "gene for homosexuality," and (most recently and perhaps most chilling) a "Jewish gene."

I recently read a paper with the fascinating title "When the Brain Plays Music: Auditory—Motor Interactions in Music Perception and Production." It was a review paper. Review papers are not for casual readers. Indeed, back when I was involved with more specific projects, I used to hate them because they were too broad for the narrowly-focused goals I was trying to pursue. These days I can take things at a more leisurely pace, which means I can be patient with plodding through a review paper; and, as readers of this site know, I was rewarded with some fascinating insights into what we now know about how the brain deals with such matters as rhythm. It is a perfect example of a question to which there is no simple answer but which there are valuable insights for those willing to live with the complexity.

Quart is one of those who appreciates when complexity is necessary. She probably also recognizes that those who can manage complexity are in a very small minority. My fear is that the minority is so small that, in the brutality of social Darwinism, it may have lost its survival value.

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