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Dismantling neuro-myths (before junk science hurts anyone)

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From a review of Steve and Hillary Rose’s Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? in Times Higher by Louise Whiteley,

Whether or not you end up cheerleading for the book’s political agenda, its deconstruction of faulty claims about how neuroscience translates into the classroom is relevant to anyone interested in education. The authors tear apart the scientific logic of policy documents, interrogate brain-based interventions and dismantle prevalent neuro-myths.

The Roses’ descriptions of how experimental set-ups are extrapolated to real-world contexts add a seam of humour to the serious business of myth-busting. I smiled to learn that statements about the negative effects of poor environment on the learning brain often refer to studies that compare rats raised in empty cages with those raised in “enriched” ones. Not only is the leap from rat to child a pretty big one, but even for rodents an enriched cage is worlds away from the stimulation offered by, say, an urban sewer. Designing spaced learning protocols inspired by how well fruit flies learn associations between scents and shocks is another, almost satirical, bridge too far.

One of the authors’ favourite moves is to strip away the neuroscience from an argument and show that the conclusion is the same. Or to show that neuroscientific claims make no difference to the design of research studies that invoke them. For example, research into delaying school start times is inspired by generic ideas about the teenage brain, but there are no neuroscientific findings that tell researchers exactly how far to turn back the clock. The book often pairs arguments that neuroscience is irrelevant with arguments that sociological factors that arerelevant have been neglected. To return to the example, the authors suggest that a focus on the teenage brain diverts attention from historically specific expectations about teenage behaviour, as well as from practical considerations such as who is to haul the teenager out of bed if school starts after parents have left for work. More.

File under: Scientism is currently the world’s biggest source of nonsense

Note: Readers may remember the Roses as editors of Alas, Poor Darwin.

See also: fMRI does NOT reveal what we are thinking?

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One Reply to “Dismantling neuro-myths (before junk science hurts anyone)

  1. 1

    What is awfully cute in this book review, is that the husband-wife author team is completely dedicated to the political left. So what worries them about educrats use of neuroscience is not that neuroscience is a hopelessly reductionistic materialism, but that several of the ideologies of the left may be undermined by such narrow-minded reductionism.

    The irony is that the left-wing party began as a scientific reductionism that rejected religious ideology. In the footnotes of the review is a biographical blurb where Steven Rose says, “I was something of a swot, and became very interested in science as a way of understanding the world from a fairly early age – especially chemistry and ‘origin of life’ matters – partly as a way of challenging biblical stories.”

    Now he finds that the same scientific reductionism challenges his politically correct views as well. The schadenfreude is guilt-free.

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