The Return of Neurononsense

Posted by on Oct 2, 2008 in Uncategorized | No Comments

FMRI-scan_sectie_85
Pic c/o Wikimedia

Just when you thought it'd all started to fade away 2 atrocious examples of the snake-oiling tendency bounce into my inbox in the same day:

First, Campaign (Download 3986_001)
runs a deeply naive piece which demonstrates the kind of misunderstanding that the vendors are very keen to encourage:

    "…, neuroscience is an objective tool, which scientifically demonstrates and quantifies human         behaviour. It will have a huge impact on advertising…because it improves our understanding of     the brain how people process information and it reveals unconscious truths"

Now where to start with this nonsense?

i. the tool is a tool but so is my set of cristals (Joke!): the interpretation is what renders the "science" open to error – even the images the result of software's interpretation of data outputs and reconstitution as an image that looks like a brain.
ii. reading the data is hard because brain regions are not organised by single function: like so much of human physiology, brain function is both multi-purpose and distributed.
ii. reading the data is also hard because fMRI scans are deceptively approximate: the activity causes blood flow to active parts; this changes the electromagnetic fields so that the scanner can pick it up. The thing is the blood flow is much slower than the activity. It's a scale thing.
iii. neuroscience does not (that's N-O-T for the hard of understanding) "quantify human behaviour": it records activity in the brain (hence the name). Actually it records intermediate changes (e.g. bloodflow) that indicate activity in the brain.
iv. Behaviour is shaped by many more things than (conscious or unconscious) thinking – not least of which is other people (as modern behavioural sciences would have it). So even if the brain activity was properly measured and interpreted, it would tell us zip about what happens next
v. Thoughts are not brain activity. They are connected, clearly but because you can see some activity (reconstituted by software), does not mean you are 'seeing' a particular thought. Even seeing activity in a particular area of the brain does not tell you anything about what that person is going to do next…(which is after all the point).

Of course, neuroscience is helping us make general advances in our understanding of a number of aspects of human beings, not least unpicking the silliness of the rational economic agent and the information processing model that together have dominated bad market research for at least a generation. But it's far from being the precision tool for marketing that its advocates suggest.

And while Robin Wight is right to point out that "if we are driven by our unconscious decisions, how misled is an ad that focuses on the conscious mind?", neuroscience is just an inappropriate tool to help us with understanding the behaviour of a social creature. I'm sure that Prof Gemma Gilbert of Warwick Uni (quoted in the piece) is a lovely person but maybe the giveaway is that her speciality appears to be neuro-imaging, not in behaviour.

Seriously, folks: a white coat, fancy electronics and coloured monitor do not equal science. "Sciency" like Dr. Who's Sonic Screwdriver or the Memory Wipes of Eternal Sunshine of A Spotless Mind maybe but that – as if I had to remind you – is just "'tendies" – it's fiction.

Science does things like publish the data and methods in peer-reviewed journals for peers to review. Ben shows you how to read this

But to be fair I don't know which are worse: the snake-oilers or the journos?

    "First, of course, we shall take on duff reporting: ill-informed,
credulous journalists, taking
        their favourite loonies far too
seriously, or misrepresenting good science, for the sake of a
        headline.
They are the first against the wall" (from the Bad Science Manifesto)

And this wasn't bad enough, Martin Lindstrom is now plugging his "Buyology"? Perlease…

Update: I wonder if he knows that someone else has been talking "Buyology" for a while already. And yes it's in Marketing…