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13Aug 2013

Some neuroscience bashers are using fuzzy logic.

Some neuroscience bashers are using fuzzy logic.

On Sunday, Benjamin Y. Fong, identified only as a Harper Fellow at the University of Chicago and the author of a book on "psychoanalysis and critical theory," became the most recent in a growing list of writers taking a swipe at neuroscience. In an Op-Ed in  The New York Times entitled "Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble," Fong makes the argument that current neuroscience, with all its splash and wonder, is...

Is what? It's not easy to tell. For starters, I'm not sure what the neuro-utopian bubble is; the word "utopian" doesn't appear elsewhere in the piece. Maybe Fong didn't write the headline, but if that's the case, he should have demanded a better one. Sadly, the piece goes downhill from there.

Fong's commentary follows a piece by Daniel Engber in Slate on July 29th and a new book by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld entitled Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Neuroscience has overpromised, Satel and Lilienfeld write, and brain scans can't tell us as much as some scientists claim. That's an arguable point, and one we should debate. Engber gives us a nice critical analysis of the neuroscience backlash, which also includes a piece by David Brooks, whom Engber quotes as saying, "brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy." It's a nice turn of phrase, but it's wrong. Science, theology, and philosophy concern completely different subjects. Neuroscience didn't have to wait until theology atrophied, if it has; they can easily co-exist.

Working my way into Fong's piece, I searched for the line or two I could quote here to give a sense of what Fong is arguing. But all I got was questions. Fong begins with a summary of the federal government's new Brain Initiative, an ambitious project intended to map the brain's circuitry. And then he asks: "What happens when health insurance companies get hold of this information? Could it lead to invasions of our privacy?" To which I say: Our privacy is long gone. Insurance companies already know who has dense breasts, whose prostate is bulging, and who's taking drugs for erectile dysfunction. Take your kid to the dentist, and your insurance company will know how many teeth he's lost--and it doesn't put anything under the pillow.

Besides asking whether we could lose whatever scraps of privacy remain, Fong has another question: "Aren't these scientists once again trying to play God?" That metaphor is so old and has been applied to so many things that it has lost all meaning. Studying the anatomy and physiology of the brain is playing God? What about mapping the liver? Is that also playing God, or merely impersonating an archangel?

Fong worries that the fruits of the brain research will be fall into the corporate maw, where they will be sold back to us at an outrageous price. That's fair; he's probably right. But is that an argument for not doing it? To the extent the government is involved, some of the research will likely remain in the public domain. If the government were not doing this, all of the research would be in the hands of corporations.

Fong's rambling discourse is best summarized, I think, when he says that the Brain Initiative "tends to be at odds with the traditional ways in which human beings have addressed their problems: that is, by talking and working with one another to the end of greater personal self-realization and social harmony." Again, these things can co-exist. No published neuroscience research paper has prevented an individual from seeing a therapist, or conferring with his or her spouse, or meditating, practicing yoga, or advancing social justice.

I'm now going to write the world's shortest essay on whether neuroscience research is a valuable addition to science, self-realization, and to people's lives. Ready? Here it is:

It depends.

-Paul Raeburn

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