The general public knows very little about neuroscience
I don’t get a lot of traffic at the ole’ Facebook inbox, but I did recently receive a note from a high school friend who had neuro-based questions and therefore took advantage of our connection.
She works for a large consulting firm in the US and recently took part in an employee survey assessing workplace ethics. The curator of said survey apparently subscribes to the notion that 5% of all humanity is inherently evil and [wait for it….] TEH SCIENCEZ can prove it, using that exquisite and sensitive evil-detecting technology those of us in the business call “MRI”. You know MRI, that structural scanning technology…
The intricate sulci and gyri of Lizzie Buchen ‘s noggin, as visualized via MRI. Phew! I don’t see the EVIL MARKING that typically shows up as a big red ‘X’ over the PFC. OK, she’s cool…
Well, of course I’m being a bit harsh, and this surveyor in all likelihood meant functional MRI (fMRI), but the mocking, jeering, eye-rolling and all-out disappointment in an obvious science communication FAIL still applies (cont.)
Let’s just jump right to the punchline:
fMRI CANNOT DETERMINE IF A PERSON IS INHERENTLY EVIL. FULL STOP.
I’m hoping that my friend will be able to extract just which study was able to make such a bold claim, but I couldn’t hold off talking about this until then. Does such a misrepresentation of science and miscommunication of what brain scanning can conclude surprise me? No. Why should it considering how the NYT decided to give FKF Applied Research what essentially equated to a free advertisement in which the company rambled on about reading the minds of swing voters (I couldn’t keep my mouth shut on that one either…). Or how No Lie MRI is trying to convince courts that they can catch liars in the act with a simple brain scan (see this for more details).
Based on these examples (trust me, there are plenty more), I guess I can’t blame the general public for believing that scientists can scratch their beards while analyzing fMRI sequences of your brain activity and quickly determine whether you are the spawn of Satan. Because I can’t expect them to be able to meticulously break down papers describing potential statistical errors underlying some of these correlatory studies claiming to have identified neural substrates for complex behaviors, emotions or human conditions. That is where the media comes in with the skeptical eye to hold the scientists’ (or university press officers’) feet to the flames, demanding a candid, thorough and interpretable explanation about exactly what any particular headline-magnet study actually demonstrates. Instead, too often, those in the media take the easy path and write those fancy headlines in a bid to “get the public interested in science” but in the end, simply misinform the entire readership.
So I hope that management at my friend’s company is not currently sitting around in secret meetings trying to weigh whether it would be worth it for them to identify and root out the 5% of employees who are obviously sacrificing goats and parking in handicap-reserved spaces. If they are, it truly is a sad day for science communication.