Dishonest science

BoingBoing linked to this interview about ‘brain technologies’ today which I think will inevitably give people a completely wrong impression about the field. The interviewee, David Pescovitz (a science writer, not a scientist) touches on all the popular stuff at the moment including the laughable ‘neuromarketing’:

Volunteers in one study completed a survey about their likes and dislikes in different product categories. Then, while under the fMRI scanner, they were shown items on the screen. The researchers, according to the company�s press release, �pinpointed the preference area of the brain. Using this data, the Thought Sciences team can now help their client to design better products and services and a more effective marketing campaign.� Like something from a Philip K. Dick novel, the technique is called �neuromarketing.�

If the Thought Sciences team really did manage to help their client design a better product and marketing campaign by looking at a few blobs on a screen, I will eat my shoes. fMRI and neuroscience is not at the stage where we can look at brain images and say, “Well, this person clearly prefers product A to product B because the ‘preference area’ is lit up more with A.”

Later on, he talks about the research done by Alan Snyder at Sydney on using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to improve cognitive function. This was very interesting stuff, but the fact that researchers at Adelaide were not able to reproduce the results was of course not mentioned. After all, why mention something like that when it would ruin such a good story?

There is a lot of irresponsible science journalism going on these days. Normally it is of the negative variety, that is, genetically modified crops will eat your children, but increasingly you see a lot of cheerleading of biological and neuroscientific research going on. People like David Pescovitz are misrepresenting the true state of our knowledge and giving the impression that we have TMS and brain imaging all figured out, and in a mere few years you’ll be able to zap your frontal lobes and gain 20 IQ points. Unless these journalists are totally incompetent, they can’t have failed to notice that these issues are far from resolved and certainly in the case of the TMS experiment, very much disputed. Unfortunately the alternative to incompetence in this case is not much better – sheer dishonesty, fueled by the need to file a sensational story at the end of the day.

One Reply to “Dishonest science”

  1. Most hacks aren’t scientists of course, and will willingly fill up column inches with blurb from a fancy press release, especially if it sounds like good science (even vaguely) and has the names of a number of people who sound as though they might be eminent in their field. This story is even better for the poor beleagured Mr. Phil Space – he can write a comment piece on it as well “do we know too much” “isn’t modern science marvellous” “how the insurance companies will use our private data without us knowing” “salesmen in hospitals?”

    Marvellous – one press release, and several stories, letters will come in, more column inches filled…

    Every field – and especially scientific ones which the ordinary punter woldn’t understand – needs people to point out the rubbish, to weed the ridiculous from the possible… so keep up the good work… – you should contribute to Private Eye.


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