The general public knows very little about neuroscience

11 May 2009 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

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.


13 Responses to “The general public knows very little about neuroscience”

  1. Eric Michael Johnson | Permalink

    While I agree that it’s impossible to identify “evil” in a brain scan, there have been many advances in identifying sociopathy and psychopathy based on reduced grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. Raine et al. (2000) in Archives of General Psychiatry (also see Antonio Damasio’s review) suggest that the prefrontal structural deficit is significant in antisocial personality disorder. Oliveira-Souza et al. (2007) in NeuroImage also show similar grey matter reduction in the frontopolar, orbitofrontal and anterior temporal cortices, superior temporal sulcus region, and insula of the patients diagnosed with psychopathy. Both studies used structural MRI scans. Based on the social dysfunction, lack of empathy or remorse, and personal aggrandizement associated with these disorders one wouldn’t be totally off base to say that “evil behavior” occurs as a result.

    I think researchers should be very cautious about preemptively identifying someone as a psychopath and putting them in an institution based on a brain scan alone. But it might be a useful tool for identifying someone early on that shows some of these behavioral traits. They can then be better monitored and/or encouraged in directions where they are less likely to cause harm. There are enough sociopaths on Wall Street now as it is, we would do well to reduce the trend.

  2. Caryn Shechtman | Permalink

    Noah, I have found my friends know very little about nutrition (which used to be my specialty before I dove into the wonderful world of yeast genetics) as well. I once had a friend tell me she was “eating healthy” so she was eating ramen noodles (the packaged, uber salty soup) daily.

    Looks like it may go beyond neuroscience.

  3. Noah Gray | Permalink

    @Eric The Oliveira-Souza study is still likely based on fMRI because I am assuming the areas the authors chose to conduct MRI volumetry were initially identified using fMRI. I don’t have access to that paper, but I am not sure how else the neural correlates of moral conduct would be measured. So we come full circle. Correlative measurements of a neural substrate using fMRI lead to correlative structural results using MRI. The Raine study is purely correlative and a bit more rudimentary than the Oliveira-Souza one. But in both studies, I’m not sure we have learned much beyond associations. And as xkcd said:

  4. Björn Brembs | Permalink

    @Eric: Haven’t read the papers – how many people have these alterations and do not show psychopathic symptoms?
    @Noah: The dilemma with the media and neuroscience is that the brain can in some instances be too complicated for tabloids. The more we find out about how the brain works, the less appealing it will be for the media. From time to time we will find one or the other easily reportable tidbit, but on the whole, things won’t get any simpler. Now my argument is that the reporting has to become more nuanced and complex, raising the level of the population, but I realize that this is probably too naive a position.

  5. Noah Gray | Permalink

    @Björn: I’m with you. Let’s make the coverage more accurate instead of sensationalized. Is it possible that we are underestimating a good portion of the public regarding their scientific interest, i.e., we don’t need to “dumb it down” too much nor make up false headlines in order to garner readership? Those that pick up the science section of the paper, surf to the science section of their favorite online news source, or regularly read a popsci magazine are already making a choice to become interested in science. Let’s not disappoint them by feeding them a load of lies and garbage.

  6. Cristian Bodo | Permalink

    @Noah: Agree, but what you describe sounds too much like preaching to the choir. As you put it, Those that pick up the science section of the paper, surf to the science section of their favorite online news source, or regularly read a popsci magazine are already making a choice to become interested in science. But what about those who haven’t? Do we just assume that there’s no hope for them? At the risk of playing the Devil’s advocate here (which I’m sure would be reflected on my fMRI scan if I submitted to one right now), I find that journalists usually get a bad rap precisely when they try to get science-related news out there. Let’s not forget that this sort of articles have to compete for space with all sort of news coming from everywhere else, so of course you need to have a catchy headline to get your editor to publish it on the first place. You’ll expect an educated reader to go beyond that, read the whole article and get a more or less acceptable idea of the piece of research you’re trying to promote (if the piece is well-written indeed). But there’s always going to be those who are satisfied with reading the headline and draw all kind of ridiculous conclusions from them, as in this case. If you ask me, I think that that is the lesser of two evils (no pun intended).

  7. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Hi Cristian. I do understand the plight of the journalist trying to compete for space, but the tired unsatisfactory argument that change has to occur at the top does indeed apply here. Editors need to make a choice as to what they want to cover. If science isn’t on the agenda unless it says something about intelligence & orgasms, Social media and morality or how Facebook is actually killing us, then let those publications build up an anti-science reputation. The economics of consumption will then sort it out.

    By the lesser of two evils, I assume you mean that “ridiculous conclusion jumping” is less evil than no science exposure at all. I’ll actually state that I disagree and feel that the latter is the lesser of two evils. If the only way we can get the public interested in science is to lie to them about which questions science can and can’t answer, I’d rather leave those casual readers in the dark, hoping that curiosity will lead them to better coverage.

  8. Barry Hudson | Permalink

    Correlation and causation; the most misunderstood element of science. This isnt helped by the daily onslaught of headlines such as “chocolate prevents cancer” in the media. Take a study, misunderstand the findings and misquote the authors and viola you have a sensation such as the Facebook story.

  9. Cristian Bodo | Permalink

    mmmm. Still unconvinced, although those examples you linked to on the evil effects of Twitter and Facebook are particularly appalling. But editors are heavily constrained on what they want to cover, regardless of their preferences or personal judgment, because they need to keep their publications interesting for the public (we all know what happens if they don’t). In other words, you always need a “hook” to sell a news piece, something that people can relate to and that would make them want to read the article. So the task of the journalist is a difficult balancing act: you have to bring down scientific concepts to the level of the layman in order to keep his attention, but at the same time trie to avoid misrepresenting the “spirit” of the original study that motivated the new report in the first place. It’s hard, and of course there’s always going to be someone doing the “ridiculous conclusion jumping” that you mention, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that a more careful reader can’t get useful information by reading exactly the same piece. Those Facebook/Twitter examples do seem like a blatant stretch of the truth, I agree, but the other one, if you’re willing to overlook the girl with the glasses and sexy lingerie, looks to me like a decent description of what that particular research group at King’s College is doing, and it is important to tell the public that they are doing it, so they can decide whether they find it worthy of being funded or not.

  10. Noah Gray | Permalink

    This should tell you how well the Daily Mail piece did with the facts. Again, I agree with what you are saying but will maintain that editors need to make decisions. If they can’t afford to cover science in a reasonable manner, then they shouldn’t cover it at all.

    I hate to think that bad scientific communication = good readership…it’s just not sustainable on any level, business or otherwise…

  11. Ian Brooks | Permalink

    Both studies used structural MRI scans. Based on the social dysfunction, lack of empathy or remorse, and personal aggrandizement associated with these disorders one wouldn’t be totally off base to say that “evil behavior” occurs as a result

    This is very correlative though. Chicken or egg? Do we have neuroanatomical differences underlying psychopathy, or the effect of psychopathy on neuroanatomy?

  12. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Another example of exactly what we are discussing here broke today. the BBC is reporting that more brain tissue in the OFC and striatum correlates with being more sociable or a “people person”. Again, there are no longitudinal studies out there to determine when and why these anatomical differences occur and thus, as Ian puts it, it is impossible to determine “which came first??

  13. Ian Brooks | Permalink

    I get frustrated with a lo of this chat because although “the brain” is a collection of organs, made of similar cell types, and linked together by complex pathways, “your brain” is a perfectly unique bundle of billions of neurons with trillions of unique connections.

    There is some interesting evidence (that i can’t be bothered to reference) that problems in connectivity underlie some features/cases of autism. However, we know that some regions of the brain are exquisitely sensitive to change, others can sustain massive, terrifying trauma and either work “fine” or re-wire.

    Very gross anatomical differences have obvious behavioural outputs. I simply find it ludicrous, lazy and unimaginative to suggest that something as prosaic as the angle of the curve of my dentate gyrus has a damned thing to do with anything.

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