Scrub your mind clean
My nomination for Worst Use of Inference in a Scientific Paper (2009) is “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief
” by brain scientist cum
philosopher Sam Harris and colleagues. It is a circus of manipulation, hire-wire extrapolations, a midway of rigged scientific-sounding games, and a glittering sideshow lined with colorful lights.
The lights were from a functional magnetic imaging device, or fMRI, an instrument which Sally Satel (psychiatrist) and Scott Lilienfeld (psychologist) in their terrific Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience compare to an automated phrenological machine, a contrivance which when placed in proximity to the skull is purported to reveal all secrets, desires, motivations; even to expose lies and to prove that we are nothing but wet meat machines, mere automatons.
In his three-ring work, atheist Harris puzzled over why anybody would be something as strange as a Christian. Until he hit on the idea that they didn’t have a choice. Their brains made them. The brains of believers and non-believers must be different! He set out to prove this, and by failing to distinguish between kinds of Christians and unbelievers, biased use of stimuli, and by treating believers unbelievers differently within the experiment, his fMRI “confirmed” what he hoped would be true. This delighted the press, which is always seeking to serve up sexy-sounding science which aligns with its conceits.
And there is nothing sexier than brains. Besides the granddaddy neuroscience, reporters are drawing upon the newborn bustling press-releasing fields of neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurophilosophy, and neurotheology; and there’s surely more neurothises and neurothats on the way.
We have learned plenty that is true about the brain, but with the increasing availability and falling prices of gee-whiz instruments and the stampede of researchers into all things brain, we have also “discovered” much that is false. Satel and Lilienfeld caution that “Neuroimaging is a young science, barely out of its infancy” where “the half-life of facts can be especially brief.” Yet experiments are tripping out of labs, all caution forgotten in the desire to be there first.
A good reason for circumspection is that brain research is usually conducted on the WEIRD; or Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, the label Joseph Henrich and colleagues in a 2010 Nature article gave to the college students who form the bulk of experimental subjects (in many fields). Henrich warned that American college kids aren’t representative of the world’s population and that conclusions gleaned from studies will be accordingly over-certain.
Studies also rely on those colorful brain scans which are not, as many think, “photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists can’t just look ‘in’ the brain and see what it does. Those beautiful color-dappled images are actual representations of particular areas in the brain that are working the hardest—as measured by oxygen consumption—when a subject performs a task such as reading a passage or reacting to stimuli” or when they go off script and wonder why they volunteered to be squeezed into a claustrophobia-inducing tube and told to lie as “still as a corpse” for over an hour.
This distinction is important because there is no (non-circular) way to check if a person is thinking what he is told, thus it’s only a possibility that the heavy oxygen-using regions are directed toward the specified experimental tasks. The best that can be said is the areas which glow brightly are correlated with the emotional states said to be under investigation—never minding that emotions are difficult to define, extraordinarily complex things. Is the “hate” center of the brain found in one experiment that same “hate” found in another experiment?
And then even the non-glowing regions of the brain seethe with activity. Satel and Lilienfeld quip, “The only truly silent brain is a dead brain.” They recount the now infamous experiment in which Craig Bennett and pals loaded a dead salmon (sushi grade) into an fMRI machine and asked it a series of personal questions. Yes. Behold, “a tiny area in the salmon’s brain flared to life in response to the task.” How? Because those beguiling glows are not pictures of the brain, they are the output of an immensely complex statistical model, one which is capable of falsely crying “Success!” Even worse, the already-manipulated fMRI outputs are further massaged and modeled, perhaps several times as in Harris’s work, before the experiment ends. The uncertainty present in each level of analysis is never carried forward, with the result that conclusions are stated with unwarranted confidence.
These limitations would never be guessed from the glittering prose which touts fMRIs as marketing tools, lie detectors, and identifiers of “brain disease.” Incidentally, the chapter on the science and politics of addiction as “disease” is worth the price of the book alone.
Now it gets strange. Many researchers are curiously anxious to turn fMRIs into exculpation engines. When somebody done somebody wrong, it’s not because they chose sin, it’s because (say) their amygdalae were on the fritz. The amygdala are the pair of pistachio-sized beads smack in the medial temporal lobes of the brain, and there is nothing evil an amygdala cannot do. They have been blamed for men not understanding women, why the brains of conservatives differ from whatever it is progressives carry in their noggins, racism (naturally), that women can spot snakes faster right before they menstruate, why scarier faces are scarier than non-scary faces, and on and on. Withered amygdalae are a sure sign of lack of control and reduced judgmental powers.
So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that I had no choice but to write this review. Maybe my amygdalae are over-sized. I didn’t want to write this—I’d rather be out for a walk—but my brain made me do it. Just as yours is making you read these words. Blame my brain for the bad jokes, too, and yours for not laughing at them. Turns out that we’re nothing but slaves to our our brains, the creatures.
Or so say folks like neurolawyers (my term) David Eagleman and Jerry Coyne, Hard Determinists and the Scrooges of neuroscience. (Recall Ebeneezer speculated that Marley was only a vision produced by “a fragment of an underdone potato.”) Hard determinists claim there is no free will, that there is no I in me, that we are nothing but perambulating bundles of chemicals following predetermined courses of action, that everything is guided by immutable, unwilled laws of physics.
Eagleman and Coyne believe that if only people knew they had no choice in their actions, then they would make better choices and thus society would be improved. Yes. They’re especially keen that criminals don’t get their comeuppance because, Coyne says, it is a “false notion that people can choose to do wrong.” They would keep punishment but jettison “retributive justice” which is “scientifically mistaken” and instead embrace “utilitarian punishment.” Makes a difference if the hangman scowls and says, “Take that you despicable rat!” or smiles and says, “It wasn’t really your fault, but we all have our roles to play” as he pulls the lever.
But hold on. If a crook was forced by rogue neurons to murder then isn’t the judge who sentences him to death obeying the irrefragable dictates of his own brain? Neurolaw accounts depressingly are one-sided: it’s the guilty who aren’t guilty and the not-guilty, society and victims, who are really at fault. Where have we heard this before?
Satel and Lilienfeld aren’t buying it. “The question whether humans can live in a material world and yet be morally responsible is not empirically testable. It is not a scientific problem.” And thus not one which can be solved by neuroscience no matter the precision of brain scans.
But you should buy it: the book I mean.
Update The End of Neuro-Nonsense: Is the age of mindless brain research already over?