Neuroscientists: We Don’t Really Know What We Are Talking About, Either

Brain-dunce-cap-300x283Ferris Jabr over at the Scientific American blog:

At a surprise April 1 press conference, a panel of neuroscientists confessed that they and most of their colleagues make up half of what they write in research journals and tell reporters. “We’re always qualifying our conclusions by reminding people that the brain is extremely complex and difficult to understand—and it is,” says Philip Tenyer of Harvard University, “but we’ve also been a little lazy. It is just easier to bluff our way through some of it. That’s one perk of being a respected neuroscientist—you can pretty much say whatever you want about the brain because so few people, including other neuroscientists, understand what you’re talking about in the first place. As long as you throw in enough jargon, it sounds science-y and legit and stuff.”

“It’s not just what we write in our studies,” explains Stephanie Sigma of Stanford University. “It’s a lot of the pretty pictures, too. You know those images with captions claiming that certain brain regions ‘light up’ like the fourth of July? I mean, come on. Most of the participants in these studies are college freshmen who only enrolled in Intro Psychology to satisfy a mandatory academic requirement. There is only one thing they know how to ‘light up’—and it’s not their brains. Frankly, we were just hoping that the colorful images would keep people’s attention. People like pretty pictures—that is something we’ve shown in our studies. Although I can’t quite remember if that was one of the findings we made up or not…”

People who read a lot of neuroscience news have probably noticed several consistent contradictions, says Laura Sulcus of Dartmouth College. “Some studies say that different brain regions work in concert to perform a single complex task, whereas other studies argue that a particular cognitive function—such as recognizing faces—is basically the sole domain of one region. The thing is, just because one part of the brain shows more activity than another, it doesn’t mean that it is the only piece involved. But it is just so easy to pick a neglected area, dress it up with some colorful fMRI studies and present it to the world as a distinct, functional region of the brain. How can we resist?…”