More on persuasive, irrelevant ‘neuroscience’

Continuing on the subject from my previous post, Mark Liberman has a nifty little post on ‘The Functional Neuroanatomy of Science Journalism’ on the blog, Language Log (tip of the hat to Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock for alerting me to this one). Liberman points out some of the same things that I argued in the previous post, but he also brings in a very careful reading of a number of recent pieces in the press that attracted quite a bit of attention while really offering very little in the way of something new, except for the Unexpected Flavor of Neuroscience to spice things up!

One of the pieces that Liberman discusses is an article on the ‘hard-wiring’ of maternal instincts that Daniel explored in an earlier post, ‘Headline: Maternal Instinct Is Wired Into The Brain.’ Liberman nominates the original article by Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times as an example of what he believes is a leading candidate for the ‘Most Pernicious Science Narrative of the Decade’:

1. Consider the hypothesis that (Stereotypical-Observation-X-About-People).
2. Brain Researcher Y used fMRI to show that (some experimental proxy for) X is (somewhat) true. Now we know!
3a. Optional bonus #1: Now we know why! It happens (somewhere) in the brain!
3b: Optional bonus #2: This shows that X is hard-wired and biological, not all soft and socially constructed.

What I like about Liberman’s piece is that he went the extra mile that I didn’t in my earlier post on ‘persuasive’ irrelevant brain imaging data: he specifically attacks the widespread tendency to equate evidence of biological difference to proof of innateness. As he writes: ‘I guess that it’s the bizarre inference from observation in fMRI scans to innateness that makes this story at all newsworthy.’ In the Parker-Pope piece, for example, the basic thrust of the research seems to be that mothers recognize their own children, something that I think is hardly earth-shattering.

I’ve written before of my dislike of ‘innate’ as an adjective, for all kinds of reasons, but perhaps because I’m an optimist by nature, I hadn’t yet cracked through to the cynicism demanded for Liberman’s perception of this narrative. I hope that the reading public does not assume that ‘biological = innate,’ even though they seem to be too closely linked in some minds (which is obviously a learned, not an innate, association). Perhaps because I work on sports physiology, skill acquisition, and perceptual learning, it does not occur to me that a discussion of biology might be taken to imply a kind of pre-destined, pre-programmed ‘hard wiring’ in the brain or body.

Part of the problem in brain sciences right now has to be the use of the computer as a metaphor for the human brain. For example, it’s one that Pinker really likes using, and I find that as soon as the words ‘hard-wired’ and ‘programming’ for the human brain show up, no matter who’s doing the writing, we’re probably well on our way to the Topsy-turvy Land of Bad Neural Metaphor. So if Liberman can nominate the above outline as ‘Most Pernicious Science Narrative of the Decade,’ I nominate ‘The brain is a living computer’ for ‘Most Pernicious Science Writer Metaphor of the Decade.’ And it’s just going to get worse, as far as I’m concerned, as research coming out now increasingly makes the third wave of cognitive science, even attempts at artificial intelligence and robotics, very different than how most readers will understand this ‘most pernicious’ metaphor. So, down with the machines; your brain is not a computer.

And to the guy who wanted me to come up with a metaphor to replace ‘meme’ so that he could continue to reify culture, but just have my blessing to do so, good luck, pal. I’m not caving in. ‘Culture’ is not a ‘thing’ any more than my brain is a computer.

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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.

2 thoughts on “More on persuasive, irrelevant ‘neuroscience’

  1. Developing Intelligence has an informative post, 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, that is worth a look:

    And for the innate question, it’s so amazingly prevalent. The book, Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, provides a very informative take on how to think about innateness without using the internal-program-drives-everything model. Here’s the Amazon link:

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