Neuro de change: A brief note on the neuroscience backlash
Does neuroscience have an image problem? Recently, we’ve started to see a number of articles and books lashing out at neuroscience. This backlash seems to be based on the fact that it’s apparently all too easy to overstep the explanatory boundaries of brain imaging studies, resulting in overhyped concepts such as neuromarketing and, er, neuromanagement.
The problem with this is that the backlash itself is going too far; by zeroing in too much on the limitations of neuroscience, the field as a whole is misrepresented as something that has no explanatory power whatsoever. It’s the same problem that we often see elsewhere when scientific disciplines are generalised in the media; critics cherry-pick their examples of some dodgy neuroscientific reporting, and make out as if it represents the entire field.
In a recent excellent piece for the Guardian, Mark Stokes outlines why this backlash is unreasonable.Yes, the brain is a hugely complex organ, and we’re only just really getting to grips with it - but that doesn’t mean that it’s too complex to ever understand. That would be like saying that if you can’t answer a research question in one study, or one paper, then it’s not worth doing any research at all. And yes, there are some limitations to what we can learn from fMRI studies, but competent neuroscientists know that, and it’s not the only tool at their disposal. What scientists often look for is convergent data - results that can be verified based on a wide variety of techniques, such as EEG, genetic studies, behavioural studies, and more recently optogenetics. These aren’t areas that work in isolation - by combining different techniques to mitigate relative weaknesses of individual approaches, the hope is that more robust conclusions can be made about what’s actually going on in the brain.
I do, however, have one little request to add to the whole debate. Please, for the love of all that is good in the world, can we stop using ‘neuro’ as a prefix? Neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolinguistic programming, neuroadvertising, neurodoping - please, it has to stop. It plays into the misperception that neuroscience is a cowboy science, and lends an air of credibility to some awfully ropey concepts. It's almost as annoying as every single scandal ever using a watergate reference. And no, no neurogate jokes please. Oh, wait.
Addendum: I asked people on twitter what their favourite/worst words were that use 'neuro' as a prefix. Here's what ensued.