back to article The Great Brain Scan Scandal: It isn’t just boffins who should be ashamed

If the fMRI brain-scanning fad is well and truly over, then many fashionable intellectual ideas look like collateral damage, too. What might generously be called the “British intelligentsia” – our chattering classes – fell particularly hard for the promise that “new discoveries in brain science” had revealed a new …

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  1. JimC Silver badge

    Isn't it often the case, though, when a new field opens up, that the first thing to appear round it is a fringe of dubious or even pseudo science? It doesn't mean the field is fundamentally unsound, it just means that there's a need to back off and say hang on, what's really happening, what's truth and what's exaggeration.

    That seems to be what's being said by some of the critics too: the need to back off and see what the evidence really is. I don't doubt that its potentially possible to correlate brain activity with what people are thinking and experiencing. Whether the current tech (or indeed future tech) can do that reliably I'm not qualified to comment.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Yep, there will always be froth bat the edge of the rising tide of knowledge and the dry land of the unknown.

      It was curious that the article made no mention of the way that researchers are financed, and the pressure on them to chase grants and get their names on as many paper as possible. Oh well.

    2. Sil

      Dubious & pseudo sciences do not make sound foundations for sciences.

      The problem is compounded by the fact that the population at large doesn't understand basic mathematics and arithmetic, so it's very easy to make people believe anything under the veneer of science.

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Agreed, but even worse, the primary tool for the new area of science is suspect too, not just the (mis-) use of it.

      The real problem is that, like the subliminal adverts myth, it will be decades if not a century for many of the erroneous results to leave the human conciousness and probably longer before the advertisers stop using the snake oil results to steer their campaigns.

    4. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Part of the problem isn't just the financing of these things. It's the media frenzy that goes on. Most reporters don't seem to have a clue but they jump on the bandwagon and pretty soon.. it's "common knowledge" about such-and-such. And once a few brain-dead celebs take it up... all bets are off. A look a the case of vaccines and autism is a prime example of this.

  2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

    I would suspect...

    Sadly a lot of science is possibly bias this way.

    For example, Radio 4 just did a show on photographs and development from the 1830s. Turns out Henry Talbot was refused when he offered to give the technology to botanists. Why? Because they feared the photos would not show the *right* information.

    So any form of science (scientific group) or study, has a risk of thinking it can decide what is right and wrong, instead of allowing the data or reality to decide.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: I would suspect...

      Botanical illustrations at the time were akin to diagrams - each plant represented in a similar way for ease of comparison. It can be hard, even with to day's cameras, to arrange a botanical subject in a consistent way.

      And that is before we think about the issue of colour reproduction.

      http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/theconveyor/2015/05/27/colouring-by-numbers-botanical-art-techniques-investigated/

      1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

        Re: I would suspect...

        While I agree about the diagrams... if you think the photos are counter-productive, perhaps reflect on the diagrams.

        When the DNA was imaged, and when atomic molecular machinery in the cell was imaged, we had to rethink our diagrams and understandings. At least on the intricate details we tended to skip over.

        Thinks like colouring the sample come to mind very quickly for methods to improve making specific photos over "bias" photos. :P

        Would it be dangerous to say that human interpretation is above record keeping of the actual data?

        Is it disingenuous to prefer the actual data plus human understanding, over just having opinion?

    2. tony72

      Re: I would suspect...

      For example, Radio 4 just did a show on photographs and development from the 1830s. Turns out Henry Talbot was refused when he offered to give the technology to botanists. Why? Because they feared the photos would not show the *right* information.

      That's not really comparable, and you're misrepresenting the situation in any case. If you want an engineer to build something for you, you don't give him a photo of the thing - he'll tell you that that's quite useless - you give him engineering drawings. Those engineering drawings don't look, to the untrained eye, much like the finished article, but they convey the essential information about the thing that the engineer needs to build it in a way that a photo can't.

      Likewise in the tradition of botanical illustrations, the drawings would emphasize the important information about a subject, with detail drawings of notable features and so forth. Botanists felt about early photographs the way the aforementioned engineer would feel about getting a photograph instead of engineering drawings; they're just not very useful. It wasn't about the photographs not showing the "right" information, it's about them not showing the important information.

      I'll leave you a couple of quotes from this page on the subject, which put things in the proper context;

      "As I began to meet more and more botanists during my quest, the reasons why photography failed to take hold in their field began to emerge. Talbot’s original term for photography – skiagraphy – carried some of the explanation. By necessity, the early photographs of plants were photograms, printed by contact and thus giving the view by transmitted light, not our normal way of seeing plants."

      ...

      "Another major drawback of photography for botanical illustration was the flip side of its very strength. Photography excelled at depicting a real-world object very precisely. However, botanists consulting an illustration wanted to observe what was typical for a type of plant, not what was specific to an individual specimen. In the end, this lack of ability to generalise the image was perhaps the single largest drawback of botanical photography."

  3. Dave 126 Silver badge

    We've lost a couple of good 'uns in the last year, Oliver Sacks and Umberto Ecco.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/celebrating-oliver-sacks/6741096 (MP3 and transcript)

    What both have in common are sharp minds and human compassion, Sacks a celebrated physician and professor of neurology, and Ecco a philosopher, historian and novelist.

    Are there any hard numbers to show that mysticism has risen in recent years? I see inherent issues with attempting to quantify it - if you are relying on people self-reporting, then could it be that it is their vocabulary and not their behaviour that has changed.

    As for mindfulness - some of the most active, effectual people I know practice mindfulness with discipline. I also know a fair few people who both a bit New-Agey and a bit useless.

    Also, no justification was given for the assumption that people's behaviour is a reaction to how they perceive their relation to the organs of power, when it could be that it is their immediate environment that more strongly influences them. I find it plausible that people's perception of power does influence them, but it is also plausible that for many people it is intertwined with other issues, such as what their future job prospects might be. The idea that mysticism is a response to fighting in vain to change The System is also put forward by Adam Curtis in The Century of the Self. (Has anyone here heard anything of him lately? There's been nothing about him on the internet since the release of Bitter Lake, save for an appearance at a film festival. )

  4. Gordon 10 Silver badge
    WTF?

    There's a flaw with this article

    It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place. Having read the article I'm not sure I'm any clearer on that point.

    Probably if you are going to rant about something better make clear what you are ranting about otherwise its just noise.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      Same here - I've kept abreast of pop science for the last couple of decades and this 'fad' against which the author is railing is largely new to me.

      I found it a little unfocused, as well. There was talk of 'luvvies' (a word coined by Stephen Fry to describe thespians, and used in that sense by Private Eye) in the article, but not of actors. Still, if you want both actors and neuroscience being talked about by someone with insight and humanity, Oliver Sacks talks, amongst other things, what he learnt from the actor Robin Williams: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/celebrating-oliver-sacks/6741096

      (to avoid confusion, note that the interviewer is called Robyn Williams, a science journalist).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        >a word coined by Stephen Fry to describe thespians

        According to a fanboi at OED which cites him as first user in the 80's - Google Books Ngram (no pun intended) Viewer however picks up usage from the 60's.

      2. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        I was aware of there was brain scan research but did not follow it very closely. I always had a problem with does one get a subject to a sort normal activity around an MRI machine. It seemed as if the experiment was having a profound if unintentional effect on the results.

      3. Don Dumb

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        @Dave 126 - "There was talk of 'luvvies' ... in the article, but not of actors."

        AO seems to use the term 'luvvies' in most of his articles, I noticed this a while back. Apparently he uses it as a catch all term to brand those with whom he disagrees. Considering that Andrew had a period of going out of his way to bash Stephen Fry, I can't help thinking he has a bit of a problem in this area.

        Personally, I find Andrew's meandering style, interspersed with many irrelevant attacks on vague groups of people to be unpleasant and detract from the point supposedly being made. I don't mind that Andrew makes cases or points I might disagree with, that's healthy counterpoint and actually I welcome that, don't want an echo chamber here.

        I've noticed that I know Andrew has written the article before reading it, simply from the headline and that isn't a compliment. This was also the case with Lewis.

        Andrew - please continue to write here but bear in mind that you come across badly in these articles in a way which I like to think doesn't fairly reflect you. I give you the benefit of the doubt that the intention is to be entertaining rather than dry but to me the manner in which the argument gets presented often comes across more as more like a Fox News rant than a well written comment piece. Perhaps read your articles and ask yourself if they are as humorous as you intended or if you have been stretching too far to throw stones at "the luvvie intelligensia" or whichever loose ambiguous group you want to fight against.

    2. m0rt Silver badge

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      There is an air of exasperation in this article, and to be fair, I think it is justified. The underlying message is: Too much crap is given too much bias that finds its way into our everyday lives.

      You can see an example of this in the way politicians tend to react to things 'media' give time to. All it does is concentrate their energy on things that are really not important, and means they don't really govern effectively.

      "It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place."

      Thank you for speaking on behalf of all of us. It is good that some take up the mantle and claim to speaking the opinions of 'the people'.

    3. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      My only interest was that one day I might discover how it is I can control the sensation of 'goose-bumps' when it's supposed to be involuntary :)

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      > It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place.

      Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)

      Anon because I'm surrounded by these poor misguided souls.

      1. Small Furry Animal

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        "Anon because I'm surrounded by these poor misguided souls."

        Yup, I live in Islington too ;-)

      2. Commswonk Silver badge

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)

        Surely the worst example is food fadism (or should that be facism?) where something that is perfectly acceptable one day is denounced the next as the worst thing you can possibly eat, only for it to be exonerated of most ill - effects sometime later?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: There's a flaw with this article

          "Surely the worst example is food fadism (or should that be facism?) where something that is perfectly acceptable one day is denounced the next as the worst thing you can possibly eat, only for it to be exonerated of most ill - effects sometime later?"

          I was in a queue for a coffee at work last week. Ahead of me were three rather ill looking women, gaunt, pale, large dark circles under their eyes with a fourth who appeared to be in robust good health. The healthy looking one ordered a cappuccino and then made a huge fuss about having it made with Soya "milk". One of the others commented that she didn't normally have soya milk. "No, but I went to see the holistic healer you recommended and she diagnosed me as lactose and gluten intolerant." The three half-dead then congratulated her and spent a lot of time "positive stroking" and yakking about their multiple allergies, intolerances and various ailments none of which had been diagnosed by a doctor, all by the "holistic healer".

          I used to work in an immunology department in a teaching hospital. Diagnosing food allergies and intolerances is an exacting process that takes a long time. Tests have to be done where the patient is put on a "bland diet" and then the suspect foods introduced one by one to see which causes symptoms. Then the foods have to be withdrawn and the patient observed to be sure the symptoms then go away to prove that there's a direct causal relationship between a food and the symptoms. The fake healers who prey on ignorance don't do any of this, they rely instead on "woo" in the form of crystals, spirit guides, snake oil salesmanship and plain old bullshit to convince some sucker that they have an illness that can only be cured by spending cash on product.

          Sadly many people seem to want to be ill (always with some diffuse, poorly characterised illness) so that they can feel "special". They can make a huge fuss in restaurants, supermarkets, at work and in coffee bars demanding that they get attention.

      3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        'Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)'

        Not specific enough. Most of this crap was around before MRI was invented. The flakiness comes first, attaching itself to concepts they don't understand is secondary.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        "Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)"

        '"Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. Yes that is all rubbish.

        'SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism' - what is wrong with looking for a biological explanation? Assuming it is biological in origin seems sensible and better than attributing it to some other things for example bad karma, bad parenting!!

        1. JimC Silver badge

          Re: Assuming it is biological in origin seems sensible

          I rather think that assuming something must be caused by something else without evidence is rarely sensible.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      "It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place. Having read the article I'm not sure I'm any clearer on that point."

      Nor am I. Maybe we've been reading the wrongright papers.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You mean Richard Dawkins was wrong...

    ... and that scientists are not always driven by absolute desire to further human understanding of nature through absolute evidence based research?

    Perhaps, they might also be humans and driven by desires to prove their ideas are correct (despite evidence to the contrary), or plain self promotion.

    I have seen a little neuroscience research and a lot of it is done to very high standards, but I have seen fMRI papers based on tiny data sets, where you could probably find any correlation you liked.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Quantum of Rubbish

    fMRI is dependent on quantum mechanics isn't it? May be this is just a side effect of various physicists' campaigns to prove that biology is all run by quantum spookiness. (cf Jim Al-Khalili last night on BBC4).

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Quantum of Rubbish

      No, no more than using X-rays to study anatomy is part of any physicist's 'campaign' to prove that life is based on high energy EMR.

      And in any case, Jim Al-Khalili's position isn't as strident as you suggest. See this review of one of his books here on New Scientist:

      https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429950-700-are-we-ready-for-quantum-biology/

  7. Drem

    Phrenology

    This mostly sounds like a more modern take on Phrenology.

    I wonder if Retrophrenology works as well with this, or if a new technique is required...

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Phrenology

      I think the next big thing will be sphinctology - an in-depth evaluation of the bumps/ridges/gaps and general condition of a sphincter so as to generate an 'arsehole' index.

      In a 0-10 kind of way, I'm probably a 6 on the sphinctology scale, but I might be doing myself a dis-service there :)

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Phrenology

        "In a 0-10 kind of way, I'm probably a 6 on the sphinctology scale, but I might be doing myself a dis-service there :)"

        Never mind old chap. I'm sure the tax man will be along shortly to give a full and proper service.

    2. Ed 13

      Re: Phrenology

      Interestingly phrenology caused a delay in the take up of the idea of functional areas of the brain in the early 20th century, as any time anyone suggested it, they were just dismissed as trying to re-introduce phrenology.

      However "phrenology heads" do make rather good mantle piece ornaments!

    3. Ilmarinen
      Holmes

      Re: Phrenology

      Indeed - Matt Briggs (he of "torturing the data to produce tiny P values") has a nice "told you so" piece on this - http://wmbriggs.com/post/19230

      Scientism - so modern, and so much better than religion or philosophy ;-)

      (presses "Submit" @ 2040 UTC, expecting long delay 'cos Andrew always does MODERATION)

      1. Drewc (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

        Re: Re: Phrenology

        Andrew does not do moderation

        1. Ilmarinen
          Coat

          MODERATION (Re: Phrenology)

          OK: As you say. My mistake.

          Must be some other reason for the delay that I've noticed with various articles & commentards. In this case 18 mins, but often hours. Any thoughts?

          (2110 UTC)

          1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

            Re: MODERATION (Phrenology)

            I've noticed that certain issues that attract a lot of the mentally deficient in the main press gets moderated on here, such as Brexit for example. Just in case I expect.

        2. Vic

          Re: Phrenology

          Andrew does not do moderation

          But Andrew's articles always require it for comments...

          Vic.

    4. Dan S

      Re: Phrenology

      Many psychologists refer to large amounts of brain imaging research as the "new phrenology" or "blob-ology".

      Psychology students study the limits of techniques like fMRI and reasons why they should look at them critically. (Well, they do on the large Psychology BSc I run at a UK university. They also learn about a wide variety of research methods, from experimental to qualitative - along with all the associated pros and cons. The point is to give them the critical skills to evaluate the quality of research.)

      The media loves brain images and often use them to tell a very simplistic story, which then ends up as "common knowledge". I was at a management training course where the facilitator launched into left vs right brain thinking. As the psychologist in the room, I had to stop her and (politely) explain why this was utter BS. She just wanted a metaphor for different ways of thinking, but pitched it as scientific fact. Much the same as the way quantum physics gets hijacked to explain the paranormal, etc.

  8. Banksy

    More evidence

    As JimC alludes to in the first comment it may be that the fMRI images are showing us something interesting but we don't know how to interpret it yet. I'm just a layman, not any sort of scientist, but I would imagine IF (note big if) the EU projects or the BRAIN projects can tell us anything about how the brain really works (or give us more detail anyway) then we may also gain a better understanding of what the images are showing.

    @Gordon 10: The point is that there have been tons of papers studies recently saying 'This area of the brain lights up when [doing x / looking at Y / thinking about Z] so this area of the brain must control that / we can predict what people are thinking about or what they will do'. So the article is saying that there isn't necessarily a strong correlation and the fundamental assumption behind these ideas may be flawed. Apologies if this explanation is too patronising or you did get that part of it.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: More evidence

      "we can predict what people are thinking about or what they will do"

      Definitely one for the muppets. If you were able to identify thoughts from MRI scans that would mean that you'd have a map of brain function versus all possible thoughts. That means that all possible thoughts constitute a set small enough not only to be mapped but to be catalogued. It also means that any problem can be solved by consulting the catalogue for the thought that contains the answer.

  9. theModge

    You missed the key study in this area

    Some one put a dead salmon in an fMRI scanner and showed it lots of pictures, then ran some statistical tools and found trends in the data, too prove that the statistical tools could come up with false positives.

    http://prefrontal.org/files/posters/Bennett-Salmon-2009.pdf

    I believe it's an open secret in the neuro imaging community that a) you need to be careful with the tools b) not everyone is. It's just another tool. You can make scary pictures with a microscope too....

    1. Little boy down the lane
      Happy

      Re: You missed the key study in this area

      Thanks for that. Got a laugh from me.

    2. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      Re: You missed the key study in this area

      Got an IgNoble in neuroscience in 2012, too.

      1. theModge

        Re: You missed the key study in this area

        Got an IgNoble in neuroscience in 2012, too.

        That I did not know, but very well deserved none the less.

  10. David M

    Not very scientific

    I was never impressed by this type of brain science. It seemed rather like noticing that when you watch YouTube videos on your iPad, it gets warm in the top-left corner, therefore you understand how your iPad works.

  11. disgruntled yank Silver badge

    Proustian neuroscience

    For a long time I used to go to bed early. It helped me missed bogus "science" coverage on the nightly news.

    1. Bruno de Florence

      Re: Proustian neuroscience

      The Proustian madeleine episode is well known in French culture. From eating a small cake, the Proustian character remembers all kinds of things from his youth. What is overlooked is the decision to eat a madeleine at that moment. Was it contingent, or directed? Another episode in the Proustian saga is the main character stumbling on a stone, which makes him remember all kinds of things from his past. The same question applies.

      There is a curious aspect to Proust's novel Time Remembered: nowhere in the text is the narrator named.

      Freud started by studying neurons, but quickly realised it was not there that the ghost in the machine could be found, but in its effects, pretty much in the way the existence of a black hole is inferred from the effects it has on the region of space where it resides.He called the aporia present in each subject Unbewusst, improperly translated in English as Unconscious.

      For those interested in pursuing those matters further, I recommend Eric Laurent's "Lost In Cognition: Psychoanalysis And Neurosciences".

      1. disgruntled yank Silver badge

        Re: Proustian neuroscience

        I no longer have a copy of the novels around the office, but I think that the madeleine was accompanied by a lime-blossom tea, and that a relative offered the tea when the narrator turned up feeling under the weather. But it has been a long time since I read the book.

      2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: Proustian neuroscience

        "There is a curious aspect to Proust's novel Time Remembered: nowhere in the text is the narrator named."

        Memory plays strange tricks. For instance, Proust never wrote a novel called Time Remembered; he wrote a seven volume series called In search of lost time (A la récherche du temps perdu). The madeleine episode occurs in the first volume titled Swann's Way(Du côté de chez Swann). I think you may be confusing the overall title with the last book, Time Regained.

        Your post shows how when we remember things we get the general gist correct but usually get the details wrong. We all do it. I read the entire A la récherche in French for a bet at university, but I still have difficulty remembering the names of four of the volumes, and as for the characters, they're a blur.

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