Jun 112012

When it comes to pseudoscience, social psychologist and writer Carol Tavris is a self-appointed curmudgeon. “I have spent many years lobbing hand grenades at psychobabble — that wonderful assortment of pop psycho ideas that permeate our culture in spite of having no means of empirical support,” said Tavris at the 24th Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention.

In her APS-David Myers Distinguished Lecture on the Science and Craft of Teaching Psychology, Tavris turned her sights on the “biobunk” that has been perpetuated in neuroscience.

“Nonexperts really love bad explanations from neuroscience,” she said. Consider the way that the fast-evolving technology in brain-imaging techniques have practically hypnotized laypeople — especially journalists — with stunning images. Unfortunately, appreciation for the images is not accompanied by any critical thinking about what the colors in those pictures actually mean.

So Tavris dedicated the rest of her talk to sharing four surefire ways to spot the biobunk that underlies what she refers to as “pseudoneuroscience.”

(1) Look for technomyopia, or “the technology knows more than I do” phenomenon. Just because a technology sounds impressive, doesn’t mean the science you can do with it is substantive.

(2) Murky methods are a sure sign of pseudoneuroscience. Statistical problems and artifacts are often hidden behind flashy findings.

(3) Reductionism is rampant in pseudoneuroscience. Be wary of conclusions that seem too neat and simple.

(4) Watch out for hype and overselling. Often “neuromarketers” will hawk impressive sounding devices or treatments to desperate parents, students, and teachers that are backed by questionable science.

Tavris made it clear that she is not conducting a campaign against all neuroscience, but she said the focus on explaining behavioral phenomena with biology alone is too narrow.

“We can strive to remind the public that biology has much to contribute to the human story,” she said. “But it is only a piece of the narrative.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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