Mixing Memory

The Brain Makes It Better

i-3f84c8f41ed6edb7f0ded85a99e05fb7-prettybrain.JPGAbout a year ago, there was an article in Seed Magazine titled “Seduced by the Flickering Lights of the Brain,” in which Paul Bloom argued that people are too easily seduced by neuroscience, believing that it made for good science, even when it doesn’t. At the end of the article, Bloom mentioned a then unpublished study in which participants were more impressed with bad scientific explanations if they contained a bit of irrelevant neuroscience. Well, now the study, which is by Weisberg and a bunch of other people (apparently to write a paper about neuroscience, you have to have as many authors as an actual neurososcience paper would) is in press. There are three experiments instead of just the one, and it turns out that even neuroscience students are seduced by irrelevant neuroscience, though PhD neuroscientists aren’t (if you’re ever wondering what the value of a PhD is, there ya have it). Here’s the abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving na├»ve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

You can read the whole thing here. Mark Liberman over at Language Log has already written the definitive blog discussion of the study, so if you don’t want to read the whole paper, just head over there to read his post.


  1. #1 Alex Leibowitz
    June 9, 2007

    Normally I’m suspicious of survey tests (probably because I don’t understand the methodology, but cf. the study on whether conservatives are less “creative”) — but this sounds like something you actually *can* test with a survey.

  2. #2 greensmile
    June 12, 2007

    Well, there goes my pet method for story/post ideas. Never took course in neursience so its good for just about everything.

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