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Rob Sheldon reflects on skepticism about the findings from research brain scans (fMRI)

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Recently, we pointed to neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s thoughts on an essay by a would-be neuroscience student who was discouraged by the nonsense around fMRI imaging. Egnor says she’s right. There is a lot of flapdoodle out there. But, he also says, don’t give up. Qualify — and then critique.

Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon also writes to offer some thoughts:

This is an important essay in many ways. It summarizes many of the problems with science—that it claims objectivity, but suffers from subjectivity. There are two common responses:

a) this is a temporary problem, once we get the bugs worked out we can retrieve objectivity;

b) this is a permanent problem, science can never be fully objective, and therefore can never be trusted.

Kelly seems to side with (b), and expresses doubts that she can ever pursue a career in neuroscience. Naturally, Michael Egnor wishes she would work through her difficulties and remain in neuroscience, but Egnor gives no assurances that (a) is possible. So what is the responsible thing to do?

In the Christian community, these two views are reflected in, say, Theistic Evolution and Creation Science. As a goal of the late Phillip E. Johnson, we IDers are contracted with spanning this divide. Yet which describes our position best:

(c) there is a tension between (a) and (b) but we can’t let it affect our overriding purpose;

(d) there is a stable spot between objectivity and subjectivity that, say, permits the objective acknowledgment of subjective bias, or the subjective acceptance of unfounded objectives.

(e) there is a (scientifically) unexplored regime that is neither objective nor subjective which spans the gulf between fact and feeling, that bridges Lessing’s ditch. (e.g. antirealism)

(f) something else?

But before the discussion runs away from this article on fMRI, let’s go back to that dead fish. Is it really true that a dead salmon responds to emotional pictures?

Obviously not. So what is wrong with the science?

Statistics. Yes, it is the nemesis of economists as much as psych majors. Because it is a rather dense mathematical field, it is more often abused than used, and this despite analysis software that does everything but write the paper for you. But statistics can tell you if a dead salmon has feelings–it really can. The real question is whether you want to employ the statistics or not. It is not a fault of statistics if you refuse to analyse the data statistically. In this case, it is a sin of omission, not a sin of commission. And those are the hardest to spot.

The Long Ascent, Volume 2

Likewise, Kelsey Ichikawa talks about the sin of employing too many statistical searches on the data, also known as “p-hacking”. Once again, the sin is not in using statistics, but rather refusing to tell the world how many searches you made on the data before you settled on this one. Because the significance is not simply the data p-value, but the search space you used in finding it.

Statistics tell the truth, it is scientists who lie by remaining silent.

Okay, now lets go back to the conflict between (a) and (b). The truth, the science is still objective. But now that objectivity includes us. In the case of economics, neuroscience and psychology, we are the objects of study as well as the subjects who study. This means that sins of omission are both easier to commit and easier to overlook. But just because it is easier to lie in neuroscience, doesn’t mean that chemists and physicists are to be trusted. I’ve been fighting the bias in physics for years, and it is only getting worse. As our society slips into the swamp of Cancel Culture, the silver lining is that bias is now becoming obvious. And that gives us the insight needed to resolve the puzzle of how to fulfill Johnson’s contract.

(c) the tension is not external, but internal. It is within us, and in our prior commitments.

(d) the stable spot is more than simply acknowledgment of our bias, it is a commitment to turn the spotlight on ourselves, to let statistics tell us when we are wrong. It is the willingness to believe an evil report about our heart, knowing that through the fire of statistics we can retrieve the precious metal of truth.

(e) yes there is unrealized path out of the tension, but no, I do not think it is philosophy, a substance, a force field, or a fifth dimension. Rather, I think it is an attitude, or if you will, a spirit. But not “the spirit of the age” or just any spirit–I think it must be a holy spirit. Science is a religious enterprise, and it matters.

(f) perhaps there is something else, I need a humble attitude, but I am not passively waiting for it. I act on what I know, recognizing that future discoveries may spin me 180 degrees, but passivity like omission, is also a sin.

Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II.

See also: Michael Egnor: Why a budding neuroscientist is skeptical of fMRI brain scans She’s right to wonder: The research ones may not be telling us what we might think:


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