Put ‘brain’ on it and people will believe it (research)

Last week I discovered this wonderful lecture by Dorothy Bisshop that everybody interested in research should take time for.

In her lecture she mentions several research-papers and 2 are definitely worth a closer look.

First there is this 2008 research by Weisberg et Al. from which this is 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 naïve 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) × 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 nonexpert 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 nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

So, if we have a bad theory that no-one in his or her right mind would follow, put we put some neuro-mumbo jumbo on it, people will start to believe it. And maybe we could add some nice brain-images? Good idea to convince people, this we learn from the second research article by McCabe and Castel (2008):

Brain images are believed to have a particularly persuasive influence on the public perception of research on cognition. Three experiments are reported showing that presenting brain images with articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to articles accompanied by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves. We argue that brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.

Don’t get me wrong, neurologists are doing great jobs and neurology is a booming field of research. But at the same time be careful with why you believe something!

11 thoughts on “Put ‘brain’ on it and people will believe it (research)

  1. Right on. And when you really want to watch out is when the speaker brings out a brain in a jar. I’ve experienced this twice at learning conferences. Then they say you’ve got to understand how the brain works to understand learning. As if they know something you don’t because they’ve been studying the brain directly. Mumbo jumbo.

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