Neuro-babble

A study
published in this week’s issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience finds
that including irrelevant neuroscientific information in an explanation can
make people more likely to believe that explanation.

Three
groups of subjects – neuroscience ‘novices’, neuroscience students, and neuroscience
experts – were given descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of
the following types of explanation:

I. A
good explanation excluding irrelevant neuroscientific information

II. A
good explanation including irrelevant information

III. A
bad explanation excluding irrelevant neuroscientific information

IV. A
bad explanation including irrelevant information.

Novices
rated bad explanations to be more satisfying when they contained neuroscientific
information (i.e. IV > III) while students rated both good and bad
explanations more satisfying when the contained irrelevant neuroscientific
information (i.e. IV > III and II > I). No similar effect was found for
experts, who in fact rated good explanations to be less satisfying when they
included irrelevant neuroscientific information (i.e. I > II).

That neuroscientific
novices may be persuaded by neuro-babble is, of course, troubling.

First, it
suggests that non-scientists’ scientific beliefs may often depend on
considerations that are irrelevant to the rationality of those explanations.
Second, it also suggests that scientists (and perhaps also non-scientists)
could use scientific language to manipulate the beliefs of others. And third,
this experimental result may diminish the persuasiveness of good scientific
explanations, since it may contribute to a general suspicion about the scientific
language that must sometimes be used to describe them.

Perhaps,
though, the result with regard to novices is not very surprising. More
surprising – and possibly more troubling – is the finding that even
neuroscience students are impressed by neuro-babble. This seems to indicate
that a significant degree of neuroscientific knowledge and/or ability is
required in order to resist the rhetorical appeal or irrelevant neuroscientific
information.

Concerns
about the effects of neuro-babble are amplified by the fact that what
neuroscientific / psychological explanations we accept may (rightly or wrongly)
have pervasive effects on our belief system. For example, explanations of
ethical judgments that implicate the emotions or appeal to adaptive pressures
on our evolutionary forebears are sometimes thought to undermine those
judgments. Similarly, explanations of religious experience which locate its
neural basis in a specific area of the brain are sometimes thought to undermine
any evidential role that those experiences might otherwise be thought to play. It
seems possible, then, that even our moral and religious beliefs, may be sensitive
to such considerations as how frequently ‘prefrontal cortex’, ‘limbic system’
or ‘serotonin receptors’ are mentioned in the psychological explanations that
we encounter.   

References:

Skolnick  Weisberg et al. ‘The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2008;20:470-477

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2 Responses to Neuro-babble

  • Dominic Wilkinson says:

    Tom,

    interesting post
    Ben Goldacre made reference to the same article in the Guardian last week
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/feb/16/neuroscience

    It is interesting to speculate about whether there is something particularly persuasive about neuroscientific explanations of phenomena as opposed to other explanations. Or to ask what it about neuro-babble that makes it persuasive.
    It seems to me that it is the combination of concepts and language that are not readily understandable, as well as the ‘cultural currency’ of a particular type of explanation. Other pseudo-medical or pseudo-scientific explanations of phenomena also take advantage of this. Think of the sort of language used in advertisements about cosmetic products.
    In other cultures, and at other times pervasive beliefs about what models of the world were truth-containing, lead to other types of explanations having particular currency. For example Freudian concepts have been used in the past in the sort of psychobabble equivalent of the phenomenon described, but are now out of vogue.

    Dominic Wilkinson

  • wayne yuen says:

    I think a study like this also reminds us philosophers that we can be caught up in the jargon of the discipline just as much as anyone else. Philosophical discourse is increasingly becoming jargoned that the layperson cannot understand it, but look upon it with awe, since it is so jargoned. I hate the idea of philosophy remaining within the confines of the “ivory tower.”

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