In the world of science blogging, Neuroskeptic is kind of like our James Dean: talented, famous and mysterious. His site gets an average of 1500 to 2000 hits a day — not too shabby for someone who covers such alluring topics as statistical methods and ways to improve neuroscience.
Making a rare public appearance, Neuroskeptic came to Penn last week as part of the CNS Talk Series, delivering a lecture Thursday night called “Brain Rumors: Public (Mis)understanding of Neuroscience and Why it Matters.” His main point was simple: Neuroscience matters because people take it seriously, perhaps too seriously.
Before the lecture, I got to chat with him blogger to (much more famous) blogger. We talked about everything from what makes good science writing to why hotter people may not be any nicer. Read on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What motivated you to start your blog?
So about four years ago, I was doing my PhD and using fMRI, and I kind of felt like I and other people in that area had been given the job of using these fMRI analyses, these really complicated and amazing techniques, without really being aware of how to use them properly. Looking around, I realized that this might have been a widespread problem — that we in neuroscience had all these really useful techniques, but people just sort of dived in to use them without thinking about whether they should be [applying them to] particular questions, or how to use them best. So I started the blog as a way of educating myself — to help myself, really, but also as a way of starting a conversation on this issue. Then other things caught my eye, and it kind of snowballed.
You recently posted about a psych study questioning the tendency to “judge a book by its cover,” or judge personality by attractiveness. You said something interesting about how debunking these kinds of everyday misconceptions is what psychology should do — what did you mean by that, and why?
I don’t think that’s all psychology should do, cover what the public finds interesting. But I think with psychology in particular, there’s a kind of disdain for things which are everyday and mundane. I think psychology has often tried to come up with novel ideas and novel experiments, which is great — like looking at things that people haven’t looked at before, and that’s fine. But that’s by its nature sort of arcane, and I think we shouldn’t overlook things like “judging a book by its cover,” which everyone is kind of interested in. That’s directly relevant to people’s lives and has actual consequences. Whereas I think if you’re looking at, I don’t know, the effect of the color of a room on people’s mood — I guess that could be relevant, if you then start painting everyone’s room, but it’s not part of people’s lives already. Whereas other things are, and I think we need to pay more attention to those.
So you think the sort of “basic science” research like the room color stuff should be balanced out by “everyday” questions.
Yeah. I think there’s a tendency for psychologists to think, well, if everyone sort of knows how this works, then there’s not much interesting there for me as a psychologist. But I don’t think that’s true. Very often people think they know how something works, but they don’t, like in this “judging a book by its cover” thing, where everyone’s got an opinion — but they might be wrong. And there might be a really interesting scientific story behind why even a wrong belief is there.
For something like judging personality by attractiveness, though, why would we even need scientific studies? Can’t we rely on our folk psychology to tell us that a “better-looking” person won’t necessarily have a better personality?
Well in that case, it isn’t obvious that there’s isn’t a correlation — there could have been one. And there are other studies suggesting that there is. Folk psychology is great in its place, but I think this is one of those cases where it doesn’t work. Folk psychology is fine for understanding individual people and actions and motivations. But it really doesn’t work for things like correlations, because the average person knows, well, maybe a few dozen people, a few hundred people at best. And that’s not big enough to make a correlation, especially because the vast majority of people only know a very restricted kind of person.
So if you want to know, say, if nationality is associated with personality, as just an average person you’re never going to be able to know that. Because most of your friends will be of one nationality, probably. For anything where you’re looking beyond what happens in an individual person’s head to the influences and associations across the whole population, [folk psychology] is not going to work.
Regarding your opinions on what science can and cannot do — as in the “Neuroscience Under Attack” article, you’ve been portrayed as being especially critical of neuroscience. Can you talk about what you actually are trying to do in relation to the field of neuroscience?
So there was that New York Times article, and there was one in the New Yorker as well…[those articles] were fundamentally fine. They covered important issues like methodology and the interpretation of neuroscience. But they kind of left it there, without acknowledging that those criticisms themselves can be subject to criticisms. And they only apply to particular things. I see myself as criticizing the problems with neuroscience, but also celebrating all the good stuff. I think those kinds of articles simplify what I and other bloggers like me are trying to do, which is to identify the problems so that neuroscience can advance better.
[Note: You can read his blog response to these articles here.]
There’s a sense of [back-and-forth] in neuroscience, where everyone in the media’s kind of done with liking neuroscience, so now it’s time to switch it. You just have to remember that it’s not black and white at all. Just as in the past neuroscience was getting really enthusiastic and over-stretching interpretations, when studies that really didn’t show anything dramatic were being presented as the best thing ever — now there’s a danger that we’ll do the opposite thing.
I think it many ways, [this backlash] has just started. I predict it will get bigger, probably. But on the other hand, in my experience probably the great majority of journalists working in this area are actually pretty good and know that there’s more caveats. I just think that all journalists kind of suffer from this [problem], where they can’t write from their full range of knowledge because it won’t make a good article.
When you write a post, how do you balance accessibility with not compromising content?
I’d say that’s one of the hardest things in writing, actually, and I didn’t used to be able to do it nearly as well as I can now. I think to make something accessible while being accurate — I really believe you can do that to almost anything. There’s nothing so inherently complicated that you can’t explain it, except mathematics, which may be impossible to explain without using mathematical terms. But certainly in biology and neuroscience, there’s nothing you can’t explain. I think the trick is, you’ve got to know it inside out so you can explain it in simple terms.
You mentioned needing a solid background in a topic to write about it well. But realistically, a lot of journalism comes down to being assigned to write quickly about something you’re not an expert on. Do you think that sort of framework for journalism has to be changed in order for people to write properly about science?
I used to think, yeah, that it’s just like a broken model and it’s not going to work. But since I’ve been blogging, I’ve come into contact with more journalists, and I think actually it can work. The funny thing is, in an awful lot of these cases where scientific things look complicated, they are a lot simpler than they seem. And once you understand one of these issues inside out, you sort of see all the parallels with the next one. My advice would be, find one thing that really interests you and figure out exactly how it’s working, and where all the different players are coming from. Because scientists in particular, what they do is in many ways very predictable. In any given story, you’re going to have the guy who proposes a radical new idea, the guy who comes along and says “that’s bad” because he has a big idea of his own, and then you have people who don’t care either way but criticize the methods. And then the press release will come along and distort all of this in particular ways.
Once you learn that, it helps you to see through all the details. Most of neuroscience, it differs hugely in the details but once you look beneath that it’s kind of like — there’s this theory that all fiction covers one of seven basic plots, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I think in nonfiction it is true. I almost want to say, any given piece of science is a lot less innovative than it first appears. It sort of follows a basic pattern. And obviously there are new results coming out of that pattern, but the pattern is the same. It depends on the field of science, but in neuroscience there are maybe three or four basic patterns.
What are those three or four basic patterns?
So in neuroscience, you have the “this part of the brain is responsible for this major function” pattern. You’ve got the “factor causes outcome,” pattern, like drinking shrinks your brain, or infection with flu during pregnancy causes schizophrenia. Or smoking causes psychosis. And those studies always have the same criticisms as well, like, did you adjust for confounding factors, that kind of thing. And then there’s the more conceptual kind of work, where you’re asking how are we best to talk about particular mental/brain function. And that sounds quite abstract, but usually it’s a similar process, where people are asking whether we should lump two things together as a single thing with the same causes and the same mechanism. People may say, for example, should we lump together decision making and emotion, do they say the same basic thing? Or in autism, people say, should we cast facial emotion recognition and social skills as part of the same theory of mind?
And there are more patterns than that, but I’d have to spend some time thinking about it so I can enumerate them all. It’s kind of like, you know them when you see them.
One last question – why the vigilant anonymity for your blog?
There are a couple different reasons. When I started out, blogging in neuroscience was much less accepted than it is today. There weren’t very many bloggers around and they weren’t respected, really, by anyone. So I felt like that could be a problem. But I also find it really helpful to be able to keep my blogging and my real work separate, because otherwise there’s a conflict of interest. And I do that by not blogging about my own work. I feel it would be much harder to remain impartial writing under my own name, because it would influence how I blogged about things, even if it wasn’t stuff that I wasn’t working on in the moment but that I could be working on in the future. It’s mainly a case of trying to maintain integrity.
But there are lots of people who blog under their own name and they’ve got integrity, so it’s kind of a personal choice, really. To be honest, it’s more of a habit now. I’ve been doing it for four years, and it’s kind of like my brand.
Over the past few days, an op-ed from The New York Times Sunday Review has been causing a stir among anyone with an interest in the public role of neuroscience. In her piece, Alissa Quart — who has published books on gifted children and marketing to teenagers — celebrates the recent backlash against popular neuroscience. Otherwise known as “brain porn,” many popular works on neuroscience have claimed dubious links between the brain and everything from encounters with heaven to ways we should think about vaginas (whatever that means). The backlash has been bolstered by journalists like Quart, by writers who are also practicing scientists like the blogger Neuroskeptic*, and by straight-up research neuroscientists, as in the Neuron paper Quart mentions. Like most stories, this one’s got more than one side. And even beyond what it means for neuroscience and the media, an examination of this tit-for-tat should caution us against the reactionary approaches that can mark these kinds of debates.
Let’s start with the angrier camp, consisting of what Quart has dubbed the “neurodoubters.” In their broad criticism of neuroscience’s public role, neurodoubters make valuable points. They are right to demand quality and accuracy in the presentation of neuroscientific findings, standards that sometimes get lost in the appeal of self-help tinged popular headlines like “Tired of Feeling Bad? The New Science of Feelings Can Help.” It’s perfectly understandable to feel skepticism when faced with the growing cadre of “neuro-isms,” like neuroeducation, neuropolitics, neurosecurity, neuroeconomics and so on. These can paint a compelling (though incomplete) picture of neuroscience as a pushy discipline that sometimes worms its way into other fields without paying its dues. And Quart is right to note that it may be especially easy for the public to overestimate the value of neuroscience compared to other fields, since findings on the brain alter our views of the mind, which in turn touch on our most precious notions of human identity.
But the neurodoubting also gets some of the picture wrong. For one thing, Quart conflates all the brain porn out there with “mainstream neuroscience discourse,” when those two arenas of literature clearly differ. The Neuron article referenced in Quart’s op-ed criticizes media articles on neuroscience, not articles published in peer-reviewed journals like Neuron itself. This isn’t to say that all academic neuroscience discourse is equally credible and all popular articles equally shoddy. The key here is that the scientific field devoted to studying the brain should not be equated with media coverage of that field, which is what this intense backlash seems to be doing. If it’s overly simplistic to view neuroscience as the potential solution to every problem and a necessary complement to other fields, it’s equally simplistic to scold all neuroscience as misguided.
In other words, there’s just no reason to convey neuroscience in black-and-white terms as either a revelatory savior or a scientific demon come to pollute our newspapers and bookshelves primarily with crap. This sounds like an obvious point, but the vehemence of this backlash shows how easy it is to overlook the value of balance in such discussions. Public discourse on different disciplines, customs and other aspects of life tied to choice too often go like this: something (like neuroscience) becomes a trend, and then it becomes a trend to indiscriminately bash that trend. The cycle is easy to fall into, and it really doesn’t do much good.
So let’s recognize that when it comes to the public role of neuroscience, we can and should have it both ways. For every sketchy bit of brain porn we should criticize, there’s a line of research we should consider seriously, like Adrian Raine drawing connections between neurobiology and criminal behavior; like Martha Farah probing the relationship between childhood, brain development and our adult selves; like Anjan Chatterjee linking brain processes to aesthetics and language. Those examples might shamelessly promote CNS researchers, but I’ll defend that promotion with two points. One, unlike many popular publications, the work of these researchers undergoes rigorous scrutiny to confirm that it deserves the recognition. Two, I’m just highlighting the CNS as one group (which I happen to know better than others) that supports high-quality work connecting neuroscience to societal issues — while also remaining critical of ways the science can be misused.
In a funny way, all this fuss over neuroscience misses one of the points it’s trying to make: neuroscience is not necessarily that special. Like any field it’s got some good and some bad, and it’s up to anyone with a stake in it to separate the one from the other.
*Note: The elusive Neuroskeptic will be speaking at Penn next Thursday. See the CNS Talk Series page for details.