The Frontal Cortex

Bad Political Science

Daniel Engber should become a full time science critic.* Over at Slate, he eviscerates the latest sloppy fMRI study of the political brain, which was published in the Times on Sunday:

To liken these neurological pundits to snake-oil salesmen would be far too generous. Their imaging study has not been published in any science journal, nor has it been vetted by experts in the field; it can’t rightly be called an “experiment,” since the authors weren’t testing any particular hypothesis; and the arbitrary conclusions they draw from the data aren’t even consistent with their own previous research.

He goes on to point out all the internal contradictions in this latest batch of experiments. The basic moral is that our political beliefs are a complicated psychological phenomenon, and are very difficult to reduce into a set of reliable cortical causes. I think the other element at work here is the allure of neuroscientific explanations, regardless of their validity. The only reason this middling science was featured in the NY Times was because they had pretty pictures of the brain that somehow justified their banal political explanations. Brain imaging is an essential scientific tool, but, like all tools, it only works under specific conditions. When the technology is used to answer the wrong kind of questions, what you end up getting is lots of sloppy experimental interpretation dressed up as rigorous science.

*Why don’t we have science critics? We have music critics and literary critics and dance critics and architecture critics…Wouldn’t it be great to also have knowledgeable people point out the flaws and achievements of the latest scientific papers? And yes, I did write an article on this idea a few years ago in Seed, although it seems to have been lost by Google.


  1. #1 Morgan
    November 15, 2007

    Why don’t we have science critics?

    …because science is the unquestionable word of God?

  2. #2 jk
    November 15, 2007

    “Why don’t we have science critics?”

    We do. It’s called peer review.

  3. #3 PERSON
    November 15, 2007

    even most fMRI studies in real journals are pretty terrible

  4. #4 Jonathan
    November 16, 2007

    I think most scientific studies would benefit from the involvement of a sociologist. Sort of a bee-watcher-watcher.

  5. #5 Natasha
    November 16, 2007

    The Gaurdian has this wonderful series called Bad Science written by Ben Goldacre which seems to fit the bill. In his most recent article he does a quite through fisking of homeopathy.

  6. #6 The Neurocritic
    November 16, 2007

    I think the name of my blog says it all. The Neurocritic: critical since January 2006.

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