‘Neuroscience’ persuasive, even when irrelevant

Cognitive Daily, one of my favorite websites, has a great piece on a study that examined whether or not people find references to brain areas ‘lighting up’ in neuroimaging (one of my least favorite expressions) and other neuro-speak more persuasive than plain old psychology articles. The piece is titled, ‘When we see a brain “light up,” [most of] our brains shut off.’ Author Dave Munger reports that he originally found out about the research through an online article in Seed Magazine (available here) (I hope I’m not inadvertently misrepresenting anything Munger has written…). The newly published study, ‘The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations,’ has appeared in the Journal of Cognitive Science (abstract here).

The study set out to find whether or not a bit of neuroscience-speak can persuade people, even when explanations are bad: ‘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’ (from the abstract). The crucial part of this is that, according to experts, the neuroscience in the experimental passages was irrelevant to whether or not the argument being advanced was valid or not.

Munger describes the original study as finding, not that neuroscience is always more persuasive than psychological explanation, but that neuroscience makes bad explanations more persuasive. He explains:

While there was no significant difference in the results for good explanations, people rated the bad explanations significantly better when they included irrelevant neuroscience. The team repeated the experiment on college undergraduates who were enrolled in an introductory neuroscience class, and the results were similar, both at the beginning and the end of the semester. The students actually rated all the explanations significantly better when neuroscience was included, whether or not the explanations themselves were good.

On experts (people having degrees or some brain science education), neuroscience added to bad explanations did not help at all, and they actually did worse that bad explanations with no neuroscience. Munger:

While there was a slight trend to rate the bad explanations with neuroscience better, it did not rise to the level of significance. Good explanations with neuroscience were actually rated worse by the experts than explanations without neuroscience content. So contrary to Bloom’s article, the final result of the study did not find the same effect for experts and non-experts. Perhaps preliminary data had been significant, but when more participants were tested, the effect went away.

So why is this important to neuroanthropology? For a couple of reasons. I could cynically argue that a dash of neuro-speak will go a bit of distance toward making anthropological arguments more persuasive in the public sector; of course, we’d have to run a study to show whether or not a sprinkling of post-structuralist jargon also made arguments more persuasive. That is, I’m not sure if neuro-speak is special, or if non-experts find signals of expertise — like impenetrable (and in this case, irrelevant) jargon — persuasive. I think that post-structuralist verbiage might not help us, but perhaps certain discourses du jour — like genetics or nanotechnology or something else — might provide a bit of a bump to our rhetoric in the eyes of non-experts.

Rather, I take as the conclusion the latter argument; that among experts, neuroscience data that is irrelevant makes bad explanations less persuasive. That is, among those who know, the bar is set higher for explanation when there is the appearance of data than when there is no suggestion of a foundation in the brain sciences. In other words, we’ve got to get it right. We’ve got to do more than just lace our explanations with a bit of technical vocabulary if we are going to be persuasive to those who know better.

In addition, if we are successful in educating the anthropology community, we can make anthropologists part of that expert crowd, less susceptible to neuro-snow-jobs and jargon smoke screens. The goal is not to create a neuro-hostile crowd, a field with a knee jerk response to call any discussion of the brain or imaging technology a form of ‘neuro-reductionism.’ Instead, a more widespread familiarity with the brain sciences does not lead people to become dazzled by the technologies and technical vocabularies, but rather makes them a much more educated, discerning audience.

… and if someone out there gets the money to run the research project where you test good and bad explanations with post-structuralist lingo to see if it’s more persuasive to naive and expert audiences, you’ve got to send me the results a.s.a.p.

Note: I’m not tagging this with the ‘blogging about refereed research’ because, to be honest, I haven’t done my homework and read and thoroughly digested the original research article. Cognitive Daily author Dave Munger is too good with that system to be messing with it when it’s not warranted. Daniel and I are working behind the scenes right now to pull together a Neuroanthropology panel proposal for the American Anthropological Association, and we’ve got a deadline to deal with on that. More news when there is some…

Weisberg, D.S., F.C. Keil, J. Goodstein, E. Rawson, and J. R. Gray. 2008. The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20(3): 470-477.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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