By Mikkel Krenchel & Christian Madsbjerg
If you’ve ever listened to a TED Talk or read a popular science book about human behavior, chances are good that you’ve heard fascinating insights about humanity that were based on the results of brain imaging technology: why and how we fall in love, how we experience music, how creativity works, and much more. Advances in neuroscience and fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology are giving researchers an unprecedented look into the chemical and neurological functioning of the brain. They have also fueled pop-neuroscience, in which fMRI scans seem to hold the power to reveal everything about the way we work. The allure is understandable.
And indeed, it is easy to embrace claims from such studies uncritically. They are brain scans, after all. And they are alluringly simple: it takes neither a rocket- nor a neuro-scientist to discern that in two side-by-side photos of brains, the one labeled “when in love” looks brighter and different. Meanwhile, the underlying science is impenetrably complex enough to make it impossible for mere mortals without years of experience to challenge it. Invoking the authority of neuroscience allows you to easily win any argument.
But a new meta-study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has shaken neuroscience to its core. Swedish researchers found a bug in the statistical packages that have been commonly used for fMRI scans for the past 15 years. The bug increased the false positive rate from the normal limit of 5 percent to up to 70 percent. Its discovery potentially challenges the findings of more than 40,000 scientific articles. And that number doesn’t even begin to include all the news articles, blog posts, newscasts, and other media stories that have used the studies to make larger conclusions about the human experience.
This revelation reveals the blind faith that has underpinned the rise of neuroscience. It also points to a more general scientism that increasingly pervades academic, public, and even business discourse. In all fields, there is an implicit but increasingly strong belief that the only things that matter are those that are measureable and that the only way to make sense of the world is through the hard sciences and quantifiable, objective data.
Picture: John Graner, Neuroimaging Department, National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, 8901 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20889, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons