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Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek: Forget Lehrer. Neuroscience’s “own house is in such disarray”

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Reflecting at Oscillatory Thoughts (16.6.12) on science writer Jonah Lehrer battling accusations he sold his work twice, Voytek lets him off easy: He is only a science writer:

He’s taken a lot of flak lately, more so than I think he deserves. He’s not a neuroscientist. He’s loose with language and exaggerates or adds flourish. He’s glib and fetishizes neuroscience.

Voytek is right; the Lehrer flap isn’t comparable to falsification of research. It is a row between a writer and his editors over an alleged violation of industry standards.

Yes, it still matters! – but to serious readers like yourselves*, not to science as such.

The real story is the corrupt atmosphere in neuroscience that fostered Lehrer’s duplicated glibness. Voytek fills us in:

So why is the neuroscientific community at fault for Mr. Lehrer’s occasionally inaccurate scientific reporting?

Because our own house is in such disarray. Of course there are the well known issues in cognitive neuroscience, such as Vul’s “voodoo correlations”, “double-dipping” statistics in neuroimaging, and the dead salmon. Or our straight-up misunderstanding of basic statistics.

But some of our issues are more subtle. One of the main offenders living in our attic seems to be conflating the idea that because a brain region is active in one state–such as addiction–and in another task–such as mothers looking at pictures of their own babies–that babies are “addicting”.

Or your iPhone is.

This makes about as much sense as saying that because I kiss with the same mouth-hole that I burp from, kissing and burping are essentially the same. (Note: they’re usually not.)

Of course, if this logical inference were true, so too should be its converse. Maybe addiction is like having babies? Shouldn’t it cut both ways?

And that’s assuming that the “dopamine = reward” hypothesis is even true.

The assumptions on which neuroscience proceeds today are often shallow and misleading, producing nonsense intended by special interest groups to manipulate the public. It ratchets up during an election year. But it is always background noise now (see here and here).

The addicting iPhone? Oh, this is the scandal he means.

See also: No, we are not afraid that science will eliminate the soul. (We are more concerned about science eliminating critical thinking skills)

*Yes, it still matters! – but to serious readers like yourselves, not to science as such: Because if Lehrer is to be paid for repeating himself, others can’t be paid for producing fresh material. Thus the reader loses (and so do other writers).

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain


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