July 7, 2022

Neuroscience in crisis

The majority – perhaps the vast majority – of neuroscience findings are as spurious as brain waves in a dead fish

The burgeoning field of neuroscience is in the middle of one of those hoary good news/bad news jokes. The good news is that two gigantic brain-mapping projects are underway in the US and in Europe, providing funding and jobs for countless projects. The bad news is, New Scientist tells us, that “The field is plagued by false positives and other problems. It is now clear that the majority – perhaps the vast majority – of neuroscience findings are as spurious as brain waves in a dead fish.”

In the past few years, fMRI scans have been used to analyze love, politics, violence, crime, and a host of other phenomena. Some lawyers are pushing to have the scans admitted as evidence in court. But are the results reliable?

A growing number of scientists are expressing their scepticism, especially after a stunning article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience earlier this year. It stated that “the average statistical power of studies in the neurosciences is very low. The consequences of this include overestimates of effect size and low reproducibility of results. There are also ethical dimensions to this problem, as unreliable research is inefficient and wasteful. Improving reproducibility in neuroscience is a key priority and requires attention to well-established but often ignored methodological principles.”

“Neuroscience has tremendous potential and it is a very exciting field,” says epidemiologist John Ioannidis, an expert in assessing the reliability of scientific studies. “However, if it continues to operate with very small studies, its results may not be as credible as one would wish. A combination of small studies with the high popularity of a highly-funded, bandwagon-topic is a high-risk combination and may lead to a lot of irreproducible results and spurious claims for discoveries that are out of proportion.”

Michael Cook

A little-known debate in bioethics circles centres on whether we should be able to inherit organs. Some bioethicists argue that the arguments for organ markets also work in making organs inheritable property. In a recent Journal of Medical Ethics article, bioethicists Teck Chuan Voo and Soren Holm (a former editor of the JME) assert that “organs should be inheritable if they were to be socially and legally recognised as tradable property”. 

The pair base their claim on the fact that “…legal recognition of objects as property… opens up the possibility of the legal recognition of the survival of the property rights and their inheritability after the death of the source/owner”.

They provide a consequentialist justification for allowing organs to be inherited: “It increases a person’s freedom and control over their organs, and it increases transfers of transplantable organs to people who need them.”

Others disagree, arguing that autonomy is not at issue when dealing with a person’s bequests. In a reply to Teck and Holm, bioethicist James S. Taylor wrote that “a person’s autonomy does not impose a duty on others to comply with her wishes; it just imposes a prima facie duty upon them to refrain from attempting to control over her.” 

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