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The Seductive Allure of Neuroskepticism

Maybe the public isn't a sucker for a good fMRI scan after all.
January 8, 2013, 7:35pm

Skepticism is in these days. A critical stance with regard to the means and ends of modern technoscience seems more prudent now than it did back when science was devoted to building a house that cleans itself (just kidding, that's also when science was building the atomic bomb).

It's not just science–out there in the murk of America's cultural discourse, there is an emphasis on fact-checking and debunking, a sensitivity to being scammed, presumably related to the increased efficiency with which formerly trusted sources of authority can deceive and manipulate the public. All this is to say that it's popular to be skeptical, and as much so in neuroscience as anywhere else. This is probably a good thing. But there's an intuitive element to skepticism, and an ego-centric element to it: no one wants to look the fool. What happens when the clever rationale for debunking a scientific claim is itself "unscientific"?


The position of “neuro-skepticism” is clearly staked-out by a handful of bloggers and outspoken researchers who fight the good fight against overblown and sensationalized neuroscience claims (you know, “New brain study shows how to get money and sex: It's your hypothalamus, stupid”). If anything they need to work harder, because David Brooks is still eating that crap up and spewing it back at The New York Times readers who must be very confused about what science even means at this point. Which, again, is good. Because science isn't a particular thing. It's a set of practices and beliefs and experiences of the world, an evolving body of knowledge rooted in our tools and perceptual possibilities.

Choose your own adventure.

To have a critical stance towards science doesn't mean that you disprove one study with another study. It means understanding the constraints, limitations, and assumptions within which scientific discourse operates. That's what blogs like Brain Myths and Neurocritic do, at their best. But there are lower-hanging fruits. Enter the glowing technicolor fMRI brain scan that clobbers your powers of reason and makes you believe whatever the man in the white lab coat tells you.

Before there were any studies to support the claim that brain imaging technology was inordinately persuasive to popular audiences, commentators were making that claim because it made sense. We know that people like bright colors and flashing screens, and we've established that many people have an unfounded but resilient faith in the ability of technology to assay human mental states. So as the neuro-everything bubble inflated over the past decade, skeptical minds argued that the dual apparatus of neuroimaging studies and media coverage led the public, intentionally or not, to a skewed perception of what neuroscience is and does.


This conversation became commonplace online and in science journalism: people will believe anything if you slap a brain scan on it, therefore responsible gatekeepers of knowledge must nod to this effect before going on to present the latest neat-o imaging study. Around 2008, some actual scientists decided to evaluate the so-called “seductive allure” of brain scans scientifically, and behold, science found that the allure existed. Test subjects believed more strongly in made-up studies with fMRI than in made-up study without it.

This small body of work seemed to confirm the intuition that people are suckers for colorful images produced by powerful machines. In mind-brain research, cognitive studies tend to be impressionistically linked with explanations on the neural level of why colors and shapes (and reductionistic explanations) are so appealing to primitive parts of the human brain. It's just neural circuitry. Thus, in a neat trick, using neuroscience to debunk the “seductive allure” of neuroscience doesn't get us out of the circle of neurological reductionism at all. Even our responses to neuroscience are overdetermined by the hard-wiring of the brain.

A draft paper released early last month from the lab of Martha Farah, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Neuroscience and Society, pretty much makes hash of the “seductive allure” hypothesis. Turns out that none of the studies used to buttress “seductive allure” critiques really tested people's response to brain images in a meaningful way.


One of those, designed by Deena Weisberg, had subjects look at written descriptions of made-up studies. (Subjects found studies with neuroscience jargon more compelling; it's also been pointed out that the neuroscience descriptions were simply longer.) The other, by McCabe and Castel, had subjects rate the scientific soundness of the a fictional neuroscience study accompanied either by fMRI images, bar graphs, EEG maps, or no image (subjects who saw the text accompanied by fMRI images rated it as more convincing).

Farah and Hook argue that these images are not parallel in their informational content–that fMRI is in fact better at showing specific, localized brain activation, and thus test subjects were correct in rating the fictional study with fMRI evidence as the most believable. McCabe and Castel asserted that “part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves.” That is to say, the pretty pictures, rather than the tendency of neuroscientists to black-box the complex assumptions underpinning their methods, are to blame for this problem we're apparently having where people believe too much neuroscience. Subsequent attempts to reproduce this finding under more uniform conditions have found no significant effect.

Farah and Hook's study, not yet reviewed for publication, that again finds no special effect of the “seductive allure.” Their literature review and preliminary conclusions suggest that this is a conversation-changer for the complex of bloggers, researchers, and journalists who track popular representations of neuroscience. In their rush to blame the images, and the inherent cognitive susceptibilities that make the images compelling, and the unsavory types who exploit this susceptibility, the commentariat have perhaps become distracted from the real, substantive weaknesses that plague neuroscience.


Farah and Hooke aren't saying that last part, necessarily. They offer two explanations for the unfounded scapegoating of fMRI: first, that behavioral scientists are wary and a touch jealous of all the funding pouring into imaging research; and second, that the intuitive appeal of a “seductive allure” led to decreased scientific scrutiny of this claim, and a publication bias against negative findings.

Within the circumscribed sphere of their study and its predecessors, Farah and Hook's explanations are compelling. Researchers and journalists were taking for granted the irrational power of fMRI without demonstrating that power in rigorous experimental scenarios–taking an intuitively skeptical stance, declaring “I will not be suckered by images” when it seems that the potential for suckering was no higher than without images.

But feelings and beliefs and rhetoric are not irrelevant to the study of the mind. For the rest of us, it's not just a matter of hacking through the bad science and the lurid popularizations to get at the truth. Taking a critical stance towards neuroscience means wading in to the tangle of social and cultural meanings surrounding the study of human thought. Some of the most important work on neuroimaging has come from social scientists like Joseph Dumit and Anne Beaulieu, who trace the implications of brain images through the media, the legal system, and the identities of the mentally ill.

Such research reminds us of something that we already (dare I say, intuitively) know: popularization of science is not a one-way street. If you read science blogs, and talk about science with your friends, and adapt scientific explanations in thinking about your own mind and body, you are exercising a kind of agency in relation to this thing we call science.

So, Farah and Hook are arguing that the “seductive allure” of brain images is not grounded in an unconscious cognitive mechanism that can be isolated in studies. But the reason the whole “seductive allure” issue became so overblown is precisely because previous researchers did argue that it was grounded in an unconscious cognitive mechanism. Before that, it was a general rumbling of epistemic discontent, not specifically fixated on fMRI images–a suspicion that some skeptics felt towards the claims of neuroscience and its way of constructing the mind.

Discussion of what is or isn't real “in the brain” is important, and this particular discussion about response to fMRI images has taken a surprising twist. But just because a phenomenon isn't “real in the brain” doesn't mean that it's not real in the world.