The Agenda

Quick Note on Neuroscience Explanations

I recently encountered a short article that drew a number of interesting conclusions from a psychological study. When I mentioned the article to a friend, he generously passed along a fascinating paper (“The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations” by Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, and Jeremy R. Gray) that offers some insight into how many nonexperts interpret neuroscientific information. The abstract reads as follows:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) × 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

Note that when neuroscience information is used in ways that appear to disconfirm our ideological priors, we might be inclined to root around for methodological flaws. And when it is used in ways that appear to confirm our priors, well, why raise methodological questions when you know it must be true? 

I love humanity. 

P.S. Earlier today, a friend sent along a proposed translation of my concluding sentence:

I love humanity (for it provides such wonders of sophistry and self-deception for my amusement).

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