XKCD versus neurobollocks

In his latest strip, fMRI, Randall "XKCD" Munroe nails the problems with brain imaging studies that claim to have found the neuroanatomical link between certain kinds of thoughts and regions of the brain (see 2013's Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience for more).

As always, the tooltip adds a brilliant punchline. Click through below to read it.


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  1. The continuing best case study in this particular field, of course, is Craig Bennett's study of measuring a dead Atlantic salmon's reactions (via fMRI) to being shown photographs of humans doing various things. http://www.wired.com/2009/09/fmrisalmon/

  2. I swear by the consecrated skull of Sagan, may James Randi himself scowl at me in perdition, that I have no real knowledge of, opinion about, or dog in the fMRI fight.

    But the dead-fish article is not intended by the original researcher to show how silly these things are. Rather, his whole point was that if he were incredibly stupid, malicious, or careless, he could make this machine generate hilarious results out of pure noise. And it is funny, and a worthwhile caution, but then as a musician I could also claim that the violin is a percussion instrument because it makes a sound when I smash it against my music stand, and it would be the same kind of claim:

    “We could set our threshold so high that we have no false positives, but we have no legitimate results,” Bennett said. “We could also set it so low that we end up getting voxels in the fish’s brain. It’s the fine line that we walk.” ...The point of the salmon study isn’t to prove that fMRI shouldn’t be used or is worthless. Brain scientists can do things with fMRI machines they otherwise couldn’t, said Ed Vul, an MIT neuroscience graduate.

    My point being, I'm not entirely convinced Munro (a duly accredited and practiced physicist/cartoonist) is making the joke that Doctorow (a scientifically literate and informed writer) thinks he is, on a subject where Munro--who is usually pretty good about recognizing the finiteness of his personal ability to declare what is True--wouldn't think of himself as an expert. To me, this reads not as a dagger at the heart of the fMRI scam, but rather a straightforward joke about experimental protocols and what can go wrong with them (a la the fish). I could be wrong about that, of course--has Munro talked about fMRI elsewhere?--but if you look at his cartoons on computational linguistics or string theory, I think you get a better idea of what it sounds like when he wants to trash something.

  3. pjcamp says:

    Sally Satel? Seriously? The same person who wants to establish a free market in human organs?

  4. pjcamp says:

    Read all about it:


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