Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mindless Neurobabble

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.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: 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.

It would be helpful for some examples. Where does morality come in? If an assertion is false, then we can skip the morality and just reject it. If an assertion is true or partly true, does that make it easier to avoid moral judgement? And do people really want to avoid moral judgement anyway?! More often we seem to want rationalizations for our moral judgements rather than escape from them.

Ah, an example abuse!?
Neuroscientists are also working on using Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans that measure activity in the brain to better understand and perhaps predict who might commit a terrorist act. So far, however, no one has identified a telltale terrorist gene or brain profile.

So that's not a great example, basically saying "we don't know", but as a thought experiment, if we discovered 90% of young people willing to become terrorists had a certain brain signature we could objectively identify, then there's a moral issue what we should do about it. That is we might also find 15% of young people has the same signature and only 1% of those actually act badly because of this signature.

Actually it reminds me of the same imaginary dilemma in the Star Wars mythology, if we can identify certain potentials of an individual, and we know those potentials can lead to good or evil, then we have a moral obligation to help lead those individuals towards the good. I remember thinking it was irresponsible for the Jedi to refuse to train Anakin Skywalker because he was too old, knowing if they didn't help him discipline his skills, they are more likely to be used for evil, or used by others for evil.

But anyway, at least in this case, the moral issue is to see "potential" and pre-judge that potential as a threat. And I guess whether you use religion or psychology or neuroscience to justify persecuting people who can theoretically threatn you, we can easily see that "fear" in the observers are the real threat, and we're still no closer to knowing what to do with that fear.

And when you're talking about people who are willing to kill and die for their cause, there's something ordinary law and order can't control. You have to decide whether you can persecute individuals before they act, or if you have to wait until they act, or are about to act, and of course, then you also have to decide about privacy - what responsibility the state has to spy on 100% citizens or a subset with "indicators" to catch the 1% who may act violently before they follow through.

Yes, what if neurology discovered people who were attracted to guns were on average more fearful people, more distrustful of strangers who look different than themselves. You might want to disarm such people, and use neurology as an excuse, and a few expert witnesses later, the Supreme Court might be persuaded by neurobabble, and our constitutional rights taken away on precautionary mindless nonsense.

With or without the help of logical fallacies, a Brave New World is ahead as Huxley warned with amazing subtly.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. OH, here's an actual case I was perhaps unconsciously thinking of in my imaginings. Its a fun story reversal of a man who studied psychopaths and believed he could identify one by brain scans, only to find his own brain contained the same pattern.

It is good when the standards you believe you can apply to those you fear get reflected back into yourself. So its not a matter of being nonjudgmental to others or self, but seeing potential threat is not the same as actual threat, so you can be proactive without prejudging.
What makes someone a psychopath? Can these traits be passed through family lines? Neuroscientist James Fallon, and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain, discusses his scientific and personal exploration into the antisocial mind.

Just how does the brain of a real psychopath work? Could we be hiding a dark side ourselves? My next guest found, to his surprise, that his own brain matched brain scans of known psychopaths, and he has not murdered anyone, as far as we know. James Fallon is professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine, author of the new book "The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain." Welcome to Science Friday.

FALLON: ... I had started studying PET scans and some other scans of killers, serial killers, psychopathic killers, impulsive killers from about the early to mid-'90s on. It was not my main area of study but as a neuroanatomist I'm able to read patterns of these scans, which I do for many syndromes. And that was going along, one or two a year from different laboratories. And then I was given a large bolus of scans in the mid-2000s.

And when I looked at it, after a couple of months, I realized that there was an underlying pattern. And I didn't know who was who. Some were normal. Some were - had schizophrenia, etcetera. But they clearly jumped out at me. So there was this common underlying pattern of low brain activity in the emotional brain, the limbic system of these killers, in psychopaths.

n.n said...

Classifying an event as an "Act of God" is equivalent to characterizing the chaotic processes that absolutely limit human perception to a limited frame of reference (i.e. scientific domain). Even the extra-universal entity "God" that is responsible for establishing the universal fitness function (e.g. life), can be equated to the so-called "secular" substitutes of spontaneous conception (e.g. "Big Bang"), anthropomorphized evolution, dark energy and matter, etc. The concern for individual faith (e.g. atheism), is not the necessary establishment of logical partitions, but rather lack thereof and conflation.

Anonymous said...
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KCFleming said...

Excellent post.
NeuroBS also permits the avoidance of blame and denial of agency.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Neurobabble: "My genes made me do it!"

Anyone who thinks religious people are crazy for talking about Satan should have their own heads examined for the mystical powers they assign to deoxyribonucleic acid and the shadowy firing of neurons.

If you look for the solution to life's mysteries through the end of a microscope, you're going to come up empty. Materialism is simply a competing philosophical construct. Once neuroscientists get over themselves and acknowledge they're leaving us with nothing, the better off we'll be.

We still have to live. We don't know how to live anymore. We have institutionalized and subsidized victimhood.

Anonymous said...

If I want to destroy a person's memories of self temporarily or permanently then the best tactic is to deliver sufficient kinetic energy to his or her brain. This means neurons determine or "cause" thoughts including ethical judgments, moral judgments, and memories of self. This does not mean we understand how neurons determine such things since the process is complex. The body/brain generates emotions as efforts to regulate and control life via the external world. Ethical and moral judgments are expressions of human biology. Human will is bounded by internal and external constraints and conditions.

Recruiting Animal said...

The avoidance of pain is a probably a basic principle of life.

If you see that pain is associated with certain parts of the brain and this area becomes active when people do certain things, doesn't that suggest that people should not do these things if they want to avoid pain?

And wouldn't that be science telling us what not to do?

Now, context can complicate things. For instance, it might hurt to say no but sometimes, in context, that's the best thing to do -- to avoid pain down the road.