May 15, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making neuroscience public: Neurohype, neuroscepticism and neuroblogging
There has been a lot of debate recently about climate scepticism and climate sceptics. To define what climate sceptics are is actually quite difficult, but some may be described as (anthropogenic) climate (change) deniers, some as climate change doubters, some as critical observers of climate science, some as just sitting on the fence. There are other sciences, apart from climate science, which have also recently attracted the qualification of scepticism or sceptics. Neuroscience is one of them. In this blog I want to explore the meaning and function of neuroscepticism, look at various claims made by some neurosceptics and then discuss the issue in the context of the media and blogging.
Neuroscepticism seems to be about either keeping a sceptical eye on neuroscience in the tradition of scientific scepticism and/or questioning (rejecting) the way that results from scientific research into the brain (neurons, synapses etc.), most importantly derived from brain imaging, are used in the wider world. Critics of what some rightly call ‘blobology’, are especially sceptical of inferences that reach out beyond the brain and its images into society, politics, economics and so on (or, to put it the other way round, reduce society, politics, economics and the self to the brain or the neurons). As in the case of climate scepticism (but in a much less polarised way), one can observe a wide spectrum of neuroscepticism that stretches out between radical neurosceptics and more moderate neurocritics.
Neurophiles and neurophobes
At the more radical end of neuroscepticism one can perhaps situate commentators like Raymond Tallis (who writes about ‘neuromania’) or Roger Scruton (who writes about what some call neurononsense). At the other end one can situate those who fiercely defend neuroscience. Sometimes they are called neurohawks by radical neurosceptics or neurophiles by supporters of neuroscience. Defenders of neuroscience, in turn, call some of the more radical neurosceptics ‘neurophobic’. The neuro- prefix is veritable godsend to neuro-rhetoric. But beyond both ends of that rhetoric and hype one can also locate a more moderate and considered neuro-critique. I’ll get back to that at the end of the post.
Tallis published an article in The New Humanist entitled ‘Neurotrash’ in which he bemoaned the proliferation of ‘neuros’: “If you come across a new discipline with the prefix ‘neuro’ and it is not to do with the nervous system itself, switch on your bullshit detector. If it has society in its sights, reach for your gun. Bring on the neurosceptics.” He is referring to neuro-s, such as neuromarketing, neuroaesthetics, neuropolitics, neuroeducation, neuroethics, neurolinguistics and so on. The danger is, according to such critiques of neurobabble, that individual and social life may become engulfed by or subjugated to the new neuro-s, that we may begin to think of ourselves, our behaviour, our society and so on just in terms of the brain, the neurons and synapses. However, is that really so? Do people really think of themselves in those terms? Is there any empirical evidence for this change in thinking, this change in attitudes towards self and other and society? And even if there was, would that be better or worse than thinking of oneself in terms of (reducing one’s self to) class or religion, for example? One can certainly observe the emergence of what some call a neuroculture or neurocultures, where the brain has become a pop culture icon, but, again, how wide-spread is this and how much influence has this on people’s self-perception? (see links added below).
Neuroscience and in the public sphere and the question of hype
Neurocritics bemoan the hype around neuroscience, especially the use and abuse of fMRI images and the amplification of hype in the popular media. This is a totally justified critique. However, sometimes the tone assumed in more neurosceptical writing smacks a little bit of hype itself and can become in itself an amplifier for existing neuro-hype. The media, of course, love a good neuro-gossip, as shown in a recent media analysis entitled ‘Neuroscience in the public sphere’. And who can really blame the media when that gossip is delivered to them on a plate (including pretty pictures or attractive metaphorical put-downs, such as neuromania). But given the apparent hype on both sides of the neurozone (amplified by the media) and the dearth of studies that deal empirically with the supposed neuroscientific threat to self and society, to whom can one turn for well-informed guidance through the neuro-maze?
Bloggers vs blobology
There is something going on beyond this squabble (or framing clash) between neurohawks and neurophobes, and this is a rise in blogs relating to neuroscience. Many of these blogs provide a more balanced account of advances and failures in the neurosciences, without hyping either the science or the scepticism [and here is one blog that exemplifies this relative balance, on the ‘brain race’, which is beginning to accelerate in 2013; added 23 February, 2013].
The study mentioned above on ‘Neuroscience in the public sphere‘ provoked the following headline in a blog: ‘Media distort, bloggers rule’, which, I have to admit, smells itself a bit of hype! However, I agree with the gist of this blog, as do other bloggers (perhaps predictably!). There really are some excellent neuro-blogs out there, such as Neurotic Physiology by @scicurious, the Neuroskeptic blog, The Neurocritic blog, Counterbalanced, Brain Box, Brain Blogger and Mo Costandi’s neurophilosophy blog (now hosted by The Guardian), to mention just a few. And there are many more out there in ‘the public sphere’, ready to be explored.
So, if you want to participate in the debate about neuroscience without becoming a member of the neurophiles or neurophobes, I suggest starting with some blogs. As Dorothy Bishop recently said in her own blog on neuroblogs: “We already have quite a few ace neuroscientist bloggers: I hope that more will be encouraged to enter the fray and help offer an alternative, informal commentary on influential papers as they appear.”
And don’t forget artists, see image above, by Michelle Hunter, whom I found by following a tweet by Mo Costandi! Visit her online gallery of brain artworks at http://www.hunterart.com
Added 16 April, 2013: For some evidence against the influence of neuroscience on understanding of personhood see article by O’Connor and Helene Joffe (added 19 February, 2013) HT
@ATurner0; and for some speculation about the influence of neuroscience on people’s self-understanding, see article by Vaughan Bell for The Guardian (3 March, 2013) and also some research by Cliodhna O’Connor in PUS on assimilation of neuronarratives into some aspects of understanding of self
Added 1 June, 2013: Good review by David Robson of two books on neurohype and neuroscepticism in New Scientist
Added 27 July, 2013: article on the non-persuasive power of brain images
Added 30 July, 2013: Is the neurohype over? Article by Daniel Engber for Slate
Added 21 October, 2014: Study finds neurohype does not reach public sphere
Image credit: (c) Michelle Hunter 2011: Brain Rhythm