Philosophy of The Big Society

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Monday, 19 January 2009

Neuro scientists confess to getting lost in their own hype

From article in 'The New Scientist'

Editorial: What were the neuroscientists thinking?
14 January 2009
Magazine issue 2691.

It is two centuries since the birth of Charles Darwin, but even now his advice can be spot on. The great man attempted a little neuroscience in The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, in which he discussed the link between facial expressions and the brain. "Our present subject is very obscure," Darwin warned in his book, "and it is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance."

Modern-day neuroscience might benefit from adopting a similar stance. The field has produced some wonderful science, including endless technicolor images of the brain at work and headline-grabbing papers about the areas that "light up" when registering emotions. Researchers charted those sad spots that winked on in women mourning the end of a relationship, the areas that got fired up when thinking about infidelity, or those that surged in arachnophobes when they thought they were about to see a spider. The subjective subject of feelings seemed at last to be becoming objective.

Now it seems that a good chunk of the papers in this field contain exaggerated claims, according to an analysis which suggests that "voodoo correlations" often inflate the link between brain areas and particular behaviours (see "Doubts raised over 'hot' neuroscience results").

Some of the resulting headlines appeared in New Scientist, so we have to eat a little humble pie and resolve that next time a sexy-sounding brain scan result appears we will strive to apply a little more scepticism to our coverage. Neuroscientists should also take a hard look at their techniques, but don't expect anyone to rush back to reanalyse the data. Science is too competitive to spend time raking over old results.

This is not the first time neuroscientists have been criticised for over-egging brain scanner results (New Scientist, 21 September 2002, p 38). It probably won't be the last. But at least there are signs that the self-correcting nature of science will win the day.


  1. I wonder if a light flashes in my brain every time I see a bar of chocolate and then another flashes when I am eating it and I wonder what the scientists would make of that!!!

    I would be prepared to do that chocolate..wey hey.

  2. This New Scientist confession is troubling in the light of recent claims like that of SLaM and the Institute of Psychiatry about treatment and services for people with mental health issues being driven by ' cutting edge ' 21st century science. SLaM went into 2009 bragging about this approach as the Healthcare Commission slammed it after a recent user survey revealed that SLaM had the worst community services in the country because its whole emphasis is around medication that at best helps some patients and at worst does nothing to deal with the living problems SLaM's service users have and just props up the fraudulent psuedo science of Psychiatry for its own ends.

    People are dying to enable SLaM to make these spurious claims about science and the excellence of its community based services.

    The evidence from the Healthcare Commission, the Patients Association , the local community and SLaM's service user's themselves is that SLaM is failing people with mental health issues , on the wards and in the community, even as it wastes public money falsely creating impressions of ' scientific ' success.

    On its website SLaM makes no mention of its community based mental health services being ranked as the worst in the country by the official healthcare regulator .

    How scientific is that?

    SLaM's Chief Executive Stuart Bell can be contacted here

    Mail SLaM CEO


  3. Norm, you're not alone

    Foundation Trust Watch

    We're all benefiting from "state of the art, best practice bullsh!tting"

  4. Socrates,

    Well you are bound to get an inferior service situated so far away from the humming and glowing intellectual hub of Camberwell , home to SLaM and the institute of Psychiatry and their cosmic 21st Century Psychiatric Immortality Project.