Once upon a time people would buttress their arguments by citing the authority of God. Referring to God could explain away hurricanes and floods, even plagues. Saying that it was God’s will sufficed as an explanation.
More recently, people came to prefer psychological insights. If you wanted to look like you had an in-depth understanding of anything regarding human behavior, you would trot out a term from the prevailing psychobabble. At first, all problems were reduced to sexual repression. Later, we explained things away by referring to low self-esteem and narcissism.
Nowadays, we seem to be moving away from psychobabble. We have arrived at the age of “neurobabble.” We have overcome our psycho-narratives and have come to believe that brain waves explain everything that we need to know about human behavior.
Melissa Dahl has the story:
Next time you feel you are in danger of losing an argument, make some obscure reference to the brain. Any nod to neuroscience will do, even if it doesn’t actually illuminate the problem at hand or prove anything that halfway resembles a point. People tend to find explanations that include references to the brain very convincing, even if those references are mostly nonsense, according to the latest episode of "Psych Crunch," a podcast hosted by psychologist (and Science of Us contributor) Christian Jarrett.
Jarrett interviews Sara Hodges, a research psychologist at the University of Oregon and the co-author of a study published this May on the appeal of “superfluous neuroscience information.” In it, Hodges and her colleagues presented students with a variety of explanations for various psychological phenomena. Some of these explanations were not really explanations at all, but rather just a restatement of the facts already presented. The students considered explanations for various quirks of human behavior from the fields of social science, biological science, and neuroscience, and rated how convincing they found each explanation.
Social science explains things in terms of upbringing, or perhaps also in terms of economic conditions, social status and class. Biology tells us that it all derives from something about your DNA. Neuroscience is a subset of biology. Its practitioners have persuaded large numbers of people that we can explain everything if we refer to brain function.
Hodges reported the results:
… neuroscience explanations always came out on top — better than no explanation, better than social science, better than the hard science.
In principle, neuroscience is hard science. The more interesting point is why we need to explain things. I am not saying that we do not want to understand, just that one needs to ask which part of the brain is activated by understanding. And also, whether the brain systems work differently when we propose different explanations. In addition, understanding why something happened in the past does not really tell us very much about what we should do in the future. It might even distract us from the task of planning for the future.
What does this new cultural symptom mean? Dahl explains:
Something about the seemingly impenetrable mysteries of the brain seems to cause people to decide they don't need to bother with critical thinking, which, incidentally, is one potential reason why "brain training" apps and the like are so popular, despite the lack of evidence to back them up. Something to keep in mind — or, rather, in your anterior cingulate cortex.
Surely, this is intriguing. The study does not merely measure what the culture values and devalues. It tells us that therapy patients are probably no longer interested in psychobabble, that they are less likely to respond to explanations that reference upbringing, narcissism, low self-esteem, the Oedipus complex and sexual repression. It also says that DNA no longer impresses people as an explanation.
One suspects that the study did not try out philosophical or theological explanations because no one takes them seriously any more. I hope that they do so the next time they test out the hypotheses.
The study does tell us that today’s students are extremely materialistic, to the point of reducing the mind and its mysteries to blips on a PET scan and to reduce human experience to brain waves. Dahl is correct to qualify the neurobabble as “meaningless.” It is also mindless.
Just because a region of the brain lights up on a scan does not mean that the highlighted region caused a behavior. Even if we have an interest in explaining things away, we need to recognize the distinction between correlation and causation.
Explanation, however good it is, can only take you so far. Neuroscience, like all science, does not offer you a set of ethical principles and precepts. It pretends to explain things but it does not tell you what you should and should not do.
One recognizes the ghost of David Hume hovering over this discussion. In the middle of the eighteenth century Hume famously noted that science can only tell you what is. It cannot tell you anything about should.
Science can tell you what happens when you shoot a bullet into a vat of jelly. It can tell you what happens when you shoot a bullet into someone’s right leg. But it cannot tell you when and whether to shoot or not to shoot the one or the other. For that we need ethics. Like all other sciences neuroscience is ethically challenged.
Science does not tell you which table manners to use, whether or not to chew with your mouth open, whether you should not return a favor or which economic policy will work best in the future.
One suspects that the mindless neurobabble appeals to people precisely because it does not tell them what they should or should not do. It is utterly non-judgmental and perfectly amoral. And yet, if you are a poor judge of the character of other people you are going to have some serious problems in this life. One suspects that neurobabble has very little to tell you about which ethical characteristics make for good character and how you should go about figuring who has them and who does not.