How bad neuroscience can mislead us

If you watch or read much science fiction, you know that all it takes to suspend disbelief about fictional science is an explanation that sounds good on the surface and makes use of terms and ideas that your audience doesn't fully understand but does find emotionally compelling. It's why "radioactive spider" made sense in 1960s.

Apparently (and unfortunately) this effect is true for actual science as well.

This slide comes from a lecture given by Oxford University neuroscientist Dorothy Bishop. Basically, it's showing that an explanation of a psychological phenomenon became more believable if you added in some hand-wavey neuroscience and pictures of brain scans. Suddenly, an explanation of human behavior that's based on circular reasoning and poor logic changes from something lay people won't accept to something we're happy to buy into.

Bishop's entire, hour-long presentation on the science of bad neuroscience is available to watch online for free. If you don't have time, check out this summary of the key points at the Neurobonkers blog.

Via Mind Hacks


  1. There’s also the common technique of incessantly repeating a false scientific “truth” until the masses accept it as fact, such as the idea that HUMANKIND and DINOSAURS co-existed together during the same stretch of Time – or that using SANITIZING WIPES before one enters a supermarket will rid one of germs and ward off swine flu

    1. Or that making you take off your belt will prevent bad things from happening on a plane ever again

  2. A mild-mannered chemistry teacher undergoes a radical alteration in personality to become a cold-blooded drug lord after his bout with lung cancer. How does Dr. Jesse Pinkman of the Albuquerque Institute of Magnets & Shit explain it?


  3. There’s always some effort to dress up opinions as scientific facts.  Brain scans of Boingboing editors have proved it.  

  4. I couldn’t watch the video, and the bullet-points don’t address this:

    Is she comparing the arguments with “neuroscience” evidence against similar explanations with non-neuroscience science evidence? Or just against arguments that have no evidence at all?

    Naturally people are going to trust an argument that has neuroscience-based evidence over an argument that claims no evidence at all.

    “Left handed people have bad manners.”

    “Left-handed people have bad manners, brain-imaging research shows.”

    The second argument cites some (made-up) evidence, so most people would probably be more inclined to tentatively trust it over the first. But would there be any statistical difference if people were told

    “Left-handed people have bad manners, impulse-control analysis shows.”

    I would love to see the actual statements used in the experiment.

    1.  The point is that the science-y terms and images don’t add new evidence to the statements, they just add flowery language to a logically circular or weak argument. For instance, to state that, because watching television stimulating areas used in maths, television must improve math skills is logically unsound. Hence why the audience of neuroscientists laughed in that bit. Regardless of whether you have a pie chart or pictures of a brain – both represent the same information.

  5. Wait, is this a real study or just common sense?  Aren’t people evaluating the information in light of the evidence (and it’s not their fault they’ve been lied to about the nature of the evidence)?

    I mean, if I said “The Wall Street Journal  just released a study that says that 40% of American Corporations will likely be bankrupt in the next three years,” probably more people would accept that number than if I didn’t source it.  It’s not their fault I lied to them.

    1. That’s a statement, not an argument that is trying to lead you to a conclusion. If you can’t tell why you can’t simply conclude that maths and TV activating the same areas doesn’t necessarily mean watching TV leads to better math skills, then the problem is not with the study.

  6. People actually believe these in a way that science fictional ‘truthy’ explanations are not. I mean, people will use such explanations in their daily lives, while I doubt even the most dim of comics fans actually tried exposing themselves to radiation in hope of developing super powers. 

    (Actually…mom didn’t let me try it.)

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