Monday, 3 August 2009

Neurobabble

Don't

Yesterday's item about GIGA MD mentioned the neurobabble that characterises that company's promotional material.

Neurobabble is a danger zone that people in Conductive Education should steer very well clear of at all costs, both when they hear it and, worse, when tempted to use it themselves.

A telling empirical study

I have since picked up an interesting commentary on this question, by Tom Douglas in the Oxford University blog Practical Ethics. This in turn reports an empirical study by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and others in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The posting in Practical Ethics could have been written specifically for the continuing education of conductors and others who have been involved over the years in implementing, promoting and researching Conductive Education programmes around the world (including Hungary), disappointingly few of whom have resisted the tempations of neurobabble.

Tom Douglas's posting is short and condensed, so I take then liberty of reproducting it here in full.

Neuro-babble

A study published in this week’s issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience finds that including irrelevant neuroscientific information in an explanation can make people more likely to believe that explanation.

Three groups of subjects – neuroscience ‘novices’, neuroscience students, and neuroscience experts – were given descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of the following types of explanation:

I. A good explanation excluding irrelevant neuroscientific information

II. A good explanation including irrelevant information

III. A bad explanation excluding irrelevant neuroscientific information

IV. A bad explanation including irrelevant information.

Novices rated bad explanations to be more satisfying when they contained neuroscientific information (i.e. IV > III) while students rated both good and bad explanations more satisfying when the contained irrelevant neuroscientific information (i.e. IV > III and II > I). No similar effect was found for experts, who in fact rated good explanations to be less satisfying when they included irrelevant neuroscientific information (i.e. I > II).

That neuroscientific novices may be persuaded by neuro-babble is, of course, troubling.

First, it suggests that non-scientists’ scientific beliefs may often depend on considerations that are irrelevant to the rationality of those explanations. Second, it also suggests that scientists (and perhaps also non-scientists) could use scientific language to manipulate the beliefs of others. And third, this experimental result may diminish the persuasiveness of good scientific explanations, since it may contribute to a general suspicion about the scientific language that must sometimes be used to describe them.

Perhaps, though, the result with regard to novices is not very surprising. More surprising – and possibly more troubling – is the finding that even neuroscience students are impressed by neuro-babble. This seems to indicate that a significant degree of neuroscientific knowledge and/or ability is required in order to resist the rhetorical appeal or irrelevant neuroscientific information.

Concerns about the effects of neuro-babble are amplified by the fact that what neuroscientific / psychological explanations we accept may (rightly or wrongly) have pervasive effects on our belief system. For example, explanations of ethical judgments that implicate the emotions or appeal to adaptive pressures on our evolutionary forebears are sometimes thought to undermine those judgments. Similarly, explanations of religious experience which locate its neural basis in a specific area of the brain are sometimes thought to undermine any evidential role that those experiences might otherwise be thought to play. It seems possible, then, that even our moral and religious beliefs, may be sensitive to such considerations as how frequently ‘prefrontal cortex’, ‘limbic system’ or ‘serotonin receptors’ are mentioned in the psychological explanations that we encounter.

Don't just leave it there

This is an important and persisting problem. The paper by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and her colleagues has become a bit of a classic. It's worth holding on to an awareness of this and of the important viewpoint that it represents, that is critical or dismissive of so much present-day discussion of brain/mind. The paper is of course open to further discussion on its own terms (see the response on the Neuroskeptic blog), but that in no way undermines the firm ground on which you may stand in opposing most of the nonsensical brain-based accounts to be found about Conductive Education (and other rehabilitative approaches) and the brain.

Don't you do it either

'Rewiring the brain', connecting mind with muscles', 'creating new pathways'... Such simple little nostrums, said and written a lot when people in Conductive Education attempt to account for what they do. Be clear about this:

- such statements do not mean anything

- they are not 'science'

- they make CE sound silly and ignorant to people who should be on side.

Stick to human, pedagogic, psycho-social explanations for human, pedagogic, psycho-social phenomena. And of course when you do, try to avoid the pitfalls of psycho-babble!

References

Douglas, T. (2008) Practical Ethics. Ethical perspectives in the news, 21 February

Neuroskeptic (2009) Critiquing a classic: 'The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations', Neuroskeptic: none more neuro, 9 January

Skolnick Weisberg et al. (2008) The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. vol. 20, pp. 470-477
(Abstract only: not an open-source journal)

Sutton, A. (2009) Out of mechanism cometh forth a mechanism, Conductive World, 2 August

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