Brain science turns to skepticism

By:  J Brean – National Post

Neuroscience’s funding and influence grows, and so do doubts over its hype

U.S. President Barack Obama’s much-hyped BRAIN initiative to crack the mysteries of consciousness via a finely detailed map of the brain in action took its first big step this week, with the release of a strategy report that foresees “revolutionary advances” in the $100-million effort to “crack the brain’s code,” perhaps in as little as “a few years.”

“We stand on the verge of a great journey into the unknown,” the report says, explicitly comparing BRAIN to the Apollo moon shot, and predicting it will “change human society forever.”

As a grand challenge, Apollo was an unambiguous success, despite the vast expense and human costs, but there is a growing sense among scientists, if not legacy-minded politicians, that the road ahead for modern neuroscience will be pocked with disappointment, with more impenetrable mysteries than solvable problems.

As the world approaches what some are calling “peak neuro,” after three decades of over-hyped “brain porn,” the optimistic hope is that Mr. Obama’s BRAIN project will lead to a detailed and dynamic map of the brain, and thus reveal both how it works and how it fails in such diseases as Alzheimer’s or autism. The pessimistic fear, however, is that the “speed of thought,” as Mr. Obama described it, is just too quick for our current brain imaging technologies, primarily functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As the anonymous blogger Neuroskeptic, a British brain scientist who tracks the misinterpretation of brain scan studies by both scientists and media, put it in an email, “there’s just as much hype and misrepresentation as ever.”

The more we learn about the brain, the less we seem to know. With its potential overstated and its aspirations presented as foregone conclusions, the relatively new field of neuroscience is in a period of self-reflection, said Jackie Sullivan, a philosopher of neuroscience at Western University in London Ont. “The vast majority of neuroscientists are well aware that the goals going forward need to be more modest,” she said.

It is a “fad,” this belief that neuroscience will offer some grand unified theory of human consciousness, said Sally Satel, co-author of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, in an interview. She compared it to historical fads that arrived with the same “totalizing promise in some people’s minds,” such as behaviourism, Freudianism, sociobiology, genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology. Science has learned a lot from each, she said, even Freud, but none explained it all. Now, as neuroscience enjoys unprecedented levels of funding and cultural influence, the limits of the science are becoming clearer. The skeptics are on the rise. The believers are on the defensive. And the bubbles are starting to pop.

Partly this rise in neuroskepticism is due to outright scandals, such as Harvard researcher Marc Hauser’s fudging of numbers in monkey studies. Partly it is due to self-critical researchers who probe the limits of their field, such as the U.S. team who cheekily demonstrated that common brain scanning techniques showed “activity” in the brain of a dead salmon that had been shown a series of photographs.

Partly it is due to exaggerated interpretations of brain scans, and the resulting creep into marketing trends, in which anything old and boring — from energy drinks to brain-training puzzles to economics — can be made sexy and new by adding the prefix “neuro.” One study even found the use of neuroscientific lingo made people more likely to believe illogical claims.

“As the public has got used to neuroscience-type explanations, unscrupulous hacks … have exploited this familiarity in order to push their made-up therapies, products, whatever,” said Matt Wall, an imaging scientist at Imperial College, London.

Most good researchers are aware of the technology’s limitations, he said, but most other people are not, and too many have uncritically swallowed the hype. Or as Adam Gopnik wrote recently in the New Yorker, “The neurological turn has become what the ‘cultural’ turn was a few decades ago: the all-purpose non-explanation explanation of everything.”

Some of this is also down to human nature, and the basic impulse to seek meaning and knowledge.

“Whenever we begin to think about a complex new scientific problem — from physics to genetics to climatology — we hope that there will be a single, simple answer that explains the phenomenon, however vast,” said Kathleen Akins, a philosopher of science at Simon Fraser University. “And human nature being what it is, if you discover one piece of the puzzle, you are inclined to believe that you have solved THE puzzle.”

Neuroskepticism is also a publishing trend, with recent titles including Dr. Satel’s book, Robert Burton’s A Skeptic’s Guide To The Mind, and Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

Curiously, it is also becoming taboo to express these doubts too bluntly. As in climate or evolutionary science, the cautious, negative claims of skepticism have blurred with the reckless, positive claims of creationism or denialism. Neuroskepticism is likewise getting a bad name in the culture, even as it gains popularity. The result is conflict.

“If you question anything about the reach of neuroscience, both in a technical, instrumental way, which is less controversial, but also in terms of its potential promise, it’s seen as anti-science. That’s the part that stunned me,” Dr. Satel said.

“If you even question if all these kinds of problems [of consciousness] are even amenable to solution through neuroscience, it’s like you’re a flat-earther,” she said. “It’s sort of amusing, but annoying.”

‘Whenever we begin to think about a complex new scientific problem — from physics to genetics to climatology — we hope that there will be a single, simple answer that explains the phenomenon, however vast’

The backlash against neuroskeptics also reflects something deeper, a belief that science is inherently progressive, that it never asks questions it cannot answer, and that with enough time, investment, and intellectual effort, all will be made clear.

The truth is, it might not.

“Much of the hype over neuroscience is symptomatic of a desire for a reductive explanation of human thought and behaviour,” said Walter Glannon, professor of philosophy of mind at the University of Calgary.

That reductionism is itself a matter of hot debate.

In Brain Wars, published last year by Canadian neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, he suggested that the root of neuro-hype, at least among scientists, was the belief in materialism, the view that matter is all that exists, and therefore the mind is nothing more than the physical behaviour of the brain.

“Along with an increasing number of scientists, I believe vehemently that the materialist framework is not science,” he wrote. Rather, it reflects an unjustified belief that life and consciousness can be reduced, via objective science, to nothing more than matter and energy.

“Skepticism shouldn’t tip over into total disbelief,” said Bethany Brookshire, a PhD in physiology and pharmacology, specializing in neuroscience, who blogs for Scientific American at The Scicurious Brain. “Neuroscience is still a young field, it has a lot to teach us, and good quality studies could tell us a lot about how we function.”

Still, as Mr. Obama’s BRAIN initiative finally launches, with similar projects ongoing in Europe and Canada, the goal seems more distant than the moon. As Dr. Satel put it, “the brain will always be about mechanism, and the mind will be about meaning.”

National Post