Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

nonsense and neuroscience

This story has been around for a while, but it’s a New Atlantis kind of thing — cf. Ari Schulman’s fine essay on “Why Minds Are Not Like Computers” — so: Deena Skolnick Weisberg (along with some colleagues) has been doing some really interesting work lately on the way people — especially readers of newspapers and magazines — respond to explanations of human behavior that invoke, or claim to invoke, neuroscience. Here’s the abstract of that paper:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) X 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

The whole paper, “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations,” may be found on Weisberg’s website as a PDF. You can also find there a related and somewhat less technical essay, “Caveat Lector: the Presentation of Neuroscience Explanation in the Popular Media” (also PDF). And here’s another example of what happens when “nonsense dresses up as neuroscience.”

“Explanations” of human behavior that claim the authority of evolutionary psychology can work in much the same way — it’s remarkable how rarely people notice when such explanations are purely speculative. For instance, in How the Mind Works here’s the explanation Stephen Pinker gave for the story of Hamlet: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

The best response I ever saw to this was by the philosopher Jerry Fodor: “Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.”

Some “explanations” offer considerably less than meets the eye.