The inexorable rise of the neuropundit

2008-10-12-warning-in-case-of-terrorist-attack.pngNews stories about various aspects of brain research are incredibly commonplace nowadays, and one by-product of this is that the general public is increasingly familiar with brain-based explanations of behaviour. This is something of a mixed blessing, in that while it’s great that the public is thinking in these (nominally scientific) terms, it’s very easy to slip into a highly speculative, reductionist way of thinking of the “my brain made me do it” type.

Nowhere is this tendency more pernicious than when trying to come up with explanations for tragic, man-made events, such as the recent Boston marathon bomb, or the shootings in a primary school in Sandy Hook Connecticut (December, 2012). In the immediate aftermath of such events details are often scarce, and the rolling nature of modern 24-hour news coverage means that presenters are often scrambling to fill time with what little information is available. One easy way of filling air-time is to wheel on some kind of expert to pronounce their opinion on what’s just happened. The problem is that these pundits are generally just as much in the dark about the details as everyone else, so their supposedly expert opinions tend to be as wildly speculative as the rest of the coverage.

News and documentary programs have been using psychologists as pundits for ages, but recently a new breed of what I shall refer to as ‘neuropundits’ has made an appearance. These people generally claim some kind of expertise on the brain, and their speculation has a neurosciencey-sounding flavour. This focus on the brain of the perpetrators then carries on into the subsequent days and weeks of reportage and analysis that inevitably follow traumatic news-worthy events.

Want some egregious examples to laugh at? How could I not oblige… First up is an article on the Time Magazine website titled The Brain of a Bomber: Did Damage Caused By Boxing Play a Role in the Boston Bombings? Even though the article actually leans towards the answer being ‘no’, the title is incredibly leading. A similar tack is taken in an article on YNetNews here. Other sources have laid the blame at the door of ‘sibling psychology’ (whatever that is…). This Indian site leads with “Boston bombers influenced by sibling psychology, says study” and then proceeds to only mention a ‘report’ from Jeffrey Kluger (the author of the Time piece linked to above). Presumably the ‘report’ was therefore a news report, and they just made up the ‘study’ bit in the title. Meanwhile, PR Newswire came up with a pretty novel perspective (ooh, they must have been so pleased with this one…) and knitted together two of the most popular news stories of the last few weeks in a piece titled “Mapping the brain, a solution to the Boston bombing?” The author proposes that President Obama’s recently announced $100 million windfall for neuroscience will allow us to understand, well… everything, including the minds of terrorists. This article is full of utterly unreconstructed neurobollocks, but here’s a brief taste:

“We also have brain structures in charge of analysis, which, looking at our technological advancement, are clearly functioning quite well. However, since we are  globally lacking a correctly functioning error monitoring system, our analytical systems might sometimes work independently and on a false basis.”

This article actually turns out to have been written by someone pushing a bullshit self-help book, with the usual promises of wealth, happiness, boundless sexual fulfilment, etc. etc. yawn. Opportunistic, much?

Moving on to other recent atrocities, the Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza gets examined by the Telegraph with the typically interrogative headline “Studying Adam Lanza: is evil in our genes?” and reveals that some scientists at the University of Connecticut are already sequencing his DNA, although it’s not made very clear exactly why they thought this was a good idea. Fortunately the excellent Essi Viding was also on hand to pour some much-needed sense onto proceedings with the fantastic quote that it was all “a complete bloody waste of time”. By far the weirdest article I found claimed that Adam Lanza was suffering from mold toxicity and contains (amongst many others) this little gem: “The more toxins the brain accumulates, the higher the brain’s electrical voltage.” Riiiight.

Of course it’s natural to want to understand what motivates people to commit these horrendous acts of violence, and forensic psychologists have been beavering away at that problem for many years now. The problems with this kind of research are huge though: 1) Most mass murderers or spree killers tend to either shoot themselves or are killed by cops, which means they aren’t available to study, 2) Getting access to those that survive is incredibly difficult, 3) There just aren’t that many of them, which makes drawing general conclusions difficult. Propensity for this kind of behaviour is (fortunately) a very, very rare trait, and these people are clearly highly unusual; even if commonalities amongst spree killers could be found in upbringing, genetics, or whatever, it’s not clear exactly what that would mean, or how useful it would be in predicting or preventing future events. What is definitely certain, is that ill-informed neurobollocks-tinged speculation about their motivations or state of mind helps no-one, and generally only makes the pundit look foolish.

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When I started writing this piece I was hoping to find some nice juicy examples of pundits talking neurobollocks about the Boston Marathon bomb (or another recent tragic incident). I seem to remember some being linked to at the time on Twitter, but can’t actually seem to find any now – can anyone help out? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll update this piece as appropriate. Thanks!

 

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4 responses to “The inexorable rise of the neuropundit

  1. “…and generally only makes the pundit look foolish.”

    And that, right there, is the weapon to use in science’s defense: public shame. If we always get on people for their flaky prognostications, over-simplifications and whatnot then, over time, we can hope to keep the level of neurobollocks in check, even if we won’t be able to eliminate it. Reasonable scientists should find that the down side of becoming a hack pundit outweigh the upside of publicity. (Did you hear that, Mr. Lehrer?) So keep up the good work!!!!

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