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(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)
(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)

Why ‘neuroskeptics’ see an epidemic of brain baloney Add to ...

Earlier this month, Barack Obama unveiled a grand, new U.S. government initiative called BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) that he said would provide “a dynamic picture of the brain in action” and help humanity “better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.”

The brain-mapping effort is set to cost $100-million in 2014, and hundreds of millions more in the years to come. This follows last year’s move in Ottawa to create a Canada Brain Research Fund with up to $100-million in matching funds to the Brain Canada Foundation.

For Mr. Obama, it may be a way to put a triumphant stamp on the presidential legacy, but to those familiar with the field, the new program is a question mark.

“This sounds like, um, a PR splash,” David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center, told National Public Radio. Donald Stein, an Emory University neuroscientist, argued on LiveScience.com that “without specific goals, hypotheses or endpoints, the research effort becomes a fishing expedition.”

Mr. Obama compared BRAIN to the Human Genome Project for its potential return on investment. The comparison is also apt on another level: Like genetics in the past decade, neuroscience seems to have reached a peak in the public consciousness.

And that’s big business not just for science, but for the media and publishing industries. Peruse bestseller lists during the past few years and you’ll find a host of titles in neuroscience and cognitive or social psychology, from Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Brain That Changes Itself to Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife and How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.

The well of material is virtually endless – after all, every aspect of the human experience can be tied, somehow, to the brain. As a result, the hype can be bottomless too. Lately a wave of “neuroskeptics” have been calling for more sober second thought.

Swallowing Jonah’s tales

One cautionary tale is Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestsellers Imagine and How We Decide. Even before his plagiarism scandal last year, Mr. Lehrer embodied many problems with popular thinking on neuroscience. His pat explanations of the brain’s complexities, his skill for extracting grand truths from limited data and his knack for drawing unlikely connections all made him a hit. They also led to his downfall.

Even prestigious publications can be guilty of similar sloppiness. Around Valentine’s Day, The Wall Street Journal ran a story called “How Neuroscience Can Help Us Find True Love” that breathlessly proclaimed, “When you see a ‘special someone,’ it’s neurons gone wild!” These wild neurons transmit messages across synapses that “neurologists call ‘action potential’ – and what we call ‘Wow!’ ”

“Science journalism is going through a bit of a crisis right now in terms of getting the proper message across,” says Noah Gray, a senior editor at the journal Nature who specializes in neuroscience. “Part of this is due to the accelerated news cycle and the extreme pressure to be first. But it also stems from the fact that complex scientific findings often demand critique from a seasoned, experienced individual familiar with the history and present of that particular field.”

Too often, journalists do not bother to seek out those individuals. But into that void have emerged several smart blogs – often written anonymously by scientists – such as The Neurocritic, Neuroskeptic and Mind Hacks, specializing in criticizing pseudo-neuroscience.

When the U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail claimed that a neurologist had discovered a “dark patch” in the “central lobe” of killers and rapists, where “evil lurks,” the sites had a field day. For one thing, the brain doesn’t have a central lobe.

“These evildoers have grown another lobe!” joked Vaughan Bell, a clinical psychologist in the U.K. who writes for Mind Hacks.

But many media outlets more respectable than tabloids have been found to misrepresent research routinely. Almost 3,000 articles on neuroscience were analyzed in a recent British study, and a large number of them distorted or inflated the scientific findings they were reporting.

The search for ‘sexy’

Scientific results don’t just get overhyped by the press, however. Sometimes the journals themselves are to blame. “Scientific journals prefer to publish results that are positive and ‘sexy,’ just like other media,” points out the Neuroskeptic blogger. “This along with other pressures distorts science.”

Scientists can also be the culprits, overstating the importance of results to win funding in an increasingly cutthroat profession. In a few recent high-profile cases, that’s led to outright fakery.

Last year, the social psychologist Lawrence Sanna stepped down from the University of Michigan after several of his research papers were retracted for having data that was a little too perfect.

In one study, Prof. Sanna claimed that people behaved more altruistically if they rose up vertically. His data seemed to show that mall shoppers who had recently gone up an escalator were more likely to contribute to charity than a shopper who had ridden down.

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