One of my favorite writers, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, this week takes on the excesses of neurobiological explanations in an essay called “Mindless.” He describes how neuroscience often merely restates the obvious in superscientific language. “Asserting that an emotion is really real because you can somehow see it happening in the brain adds nothing to our understanding.” It’s “the false gloss of scientific certainty,” he writes, to believe a claim just because there is a brain picture or animation attached to it.
Alas, the false gloss is very persuasive. Carol Tavris, one of our Selling Sickness speakers, shared a 2008 study with me that showed brain images adding scientific credibility to research as compared with articles accompanied by bar graphs and no brain pictures. Interestingly, a 2013 attempt to replicate this study failed, and produced a sophisticated paper analyzing how to understand the complex impact of brain images.
Biomedical explanations are particularly popular with the pharmaceutical industry in its advertising and on-line websites. A new review this year by New Zealand researchers published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica analyzed many studies and showed how mental-health websites are biased in favor of biological explanations and medical treatments. And — no surprise — they found that the industry-funded sites are the most biased.
We need to include information in consumer literacy programs about the seductive power of biological reductionism and neuro-persuasion so that the public will not be hoodwinked by biobabble.