Good Science vs Public Awareness (Iacoboni)

In cognitive neuroscience debates are usually quite subdued and people rarely, if ever, point fingers negatively. However, in the last 24 hours there has been a rather dramatic reversal of this norm in a debate that has carried on for several years now: whether Marco Iacoboni and his collaborators overstep the bounds of good science when they bypass peer review and take their findings on Superbowl ads and political candidates directly to the public. Prefrontal.org touched briefly on the topic several months ago in a post entitled “Political Pseudoscience“. Since that time Adam Kolber of the Neuroethics and Law Blog invited Iacoboni to repond to his critics in a post on his weblog. The response was posted this morning, an excerpt of which is printed below:

“Our New York Times op-ed applied this rational probabilistic logic to brain responses in voters watching candidates. By doing so, it also provided a splendid example of how one can do civic education by using scientific constructs and rational thinking for issues that matter to people. Sadly, science has still a marginal role in our public discourse and this is in part due to an ‘ivory tower’ attitude of many scientists that are afraid of mixing the ‘pure science’ of the lab with real life issues. The by-product of this attitude is a society in which basic concepts that emerged from science – for instance, evolution – are challenged with the irrational position that the evolutionary framework ‘can’t explain all data.’”

The Iacoboni response was well written and brought up several good items of discussion, but did not sway my opinion about his mind reading work or choice of dissemination. Some of the key points I got out of his posting were: a) He feels that many people react irrationally to his work, b) since there are more amygdala-anxiety papers than amygdala-happiness papers the amygdala must be more associated with anxiety, c) reverse inference is ok, because everybody does it, and d) we need people like Iacoboni to get the scientific message out to the public.

By the afternoon Russ Poldrack, also of UCLA, had a response posted on the same blog. An excerpt is printed below:

“Finally, I agree with Dr. Iacoboni that we should use our best scientific methods to address questions of relevance to the larger community, and that we should translate our research in a way that makes it accessible to non-experts. However, although sensationalist presentation of scientific results may result in greater press coverage, it does not advance (and may even hinder) public understanding of scientific research. Our goal should instead be to present research findings to the public in a way that expresses excitement about our discoveries but also acknowledges the fundamental uncertainty of our results and the limitations of our methods. The reaction that my colleagues and I had regarding the NY Times Op-Ed was so strong not because of its use of reverse inference per se, but because it was used so carelessly and presented with absolutely no caveats or qualifications. The portrait of neuroimaging research that this Op-Ed provided to the public bears little similarity to the kind of methodical, thoughtful science that so many researchers in the field are engaged in.”

In short: the ends don’t justify the means. If we are going to engage the public in scientific research we must do so responsibly. If you have controversial results to share can you discuss them before they are published? Sure, there are many forums where this can be done. Conference posters, talks, and web postings are all fair game. Next, if you have controversial results should you take them to the New York Times? Emphatically, no. Poldrack is right, you are potentially hurting the field by engaging in such behavior. Functional imaging is already fighting an uphill battle for respect – we need to set a higher standard for ourselves because of that. In my opinion the Iacoboni work on Superbowl advertising and presidential politics falls below that standard.

June 3, 2008 • Posted in: CogNeuro, Psychology

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