May 30, 2024

Is social neuroscience “voodoo science”?

Whole field could be discredited by radical paper from MIT researcher

Neuroscientists are learning more and
more about the brain. In the past few years, using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they have located areas which
reveal the politics of personality types, how women and gays read
maps, fear of spiders, grief at the break-up of romantic
relationships, and so on. Many of the discoveries have been reported
widely in the media.

But a new study, to be published in the journal
Perspectives on Psychological Science in
threatens to scupper all these findings. Under the
provocative title, “Voodoo correlations in social neuroscience”,
a scientist from MIT, Edward Vul, and colleagues from along with
psychologists at the University of California, San Diego argues that
many of these studies are worthless because brain imaging data have
been poorly analysed. Vul took 54 papers on social neuroscience in a
number of journals, including Science and Nature, and concluded that
their statistical methods were shoddy. "At present, all studies
performed using these methods have large question marks over them,"
they write.

This criticsm has touch a raw nerve
because social neuroscience was called “the new phrenology” when
began 15 years ago. However, its practitioners say that they have
disposed of all the objections. Now the objections have surfaced
again. Social neuroscientists are shocked and worried that their
whole field will be discredited. ~ Nature, Jan 15; Newsweek,
Jan 9