Thursday, June 7, 2007

Zeitgeist Alert: Bamboozle 'em with neuroscience

If P. T. Barnum were alive today, would he be selling the impressionable public with bearded ladies? With an animal that is part iguana, part gerbil? Don't be ridiculous! He'd sucker 'em with neuroscience.

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.

This is according to research conducted by Deena Skolnick Weisberg et. al. at Yale. Their article entitled The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations is in press at the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience .

It's worked for me.

But seriously, I think ideas that become part of the zeitgeist in the way neuroscience has recently become salient. We start seeing their application everywhere. It's human nature to resort to heuristics whenever possible, it's why education in criticial thinking skills across disciplines (rather than specific subject matter) is so essential. And those of us in popular fields are no less guilty of being seduced by those ideas, perhaps more so in that we access them all the more quickly and want to believe that our field possesses the answers. Neuroscience has by no means cornered the market on this phenomenon. I guess those working in the field must be vigilant in regard to the language used when reporting findings. And more generally focused media should be aware that when they try to make sensational news out of science by reporting only conclusions without context, they are more likely to lead their readers to draw false conclusions.

Hat tip: 3 Quarks Daily & The Frontal Cortex

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