University News

Students critique over-simplification of science

Contributing Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2011

Forget addiction, you might actually be in love with your iPhone — so long as you don’t submit that claim to the scientific method, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience John Stein told students yesterday at “Debunking the Neurohype: What Neuroscience Can Actually Tell Us” in the Brown Bookstore. The talk was part of the Science Cafe Discussion Series sponsored by the Triple Helix.

As students filed into the event, Stein passed out copies of “You Love Your iPhone. Literally,” a Sept. 30 New York Times op-ed discussing results of functional magnetic resonance imaging of subjects’ brain activity, also called an fMRI test. After they scanned the article, attendees were asked to employ “good science” to dissect the article, which Stein called an example of the media’s oversimplification of neuroscience’s power to explain human behavior.

Some students called the article “comical.” It is very problematic to conclude from subjects’ fMRI tests that they are in love with their iPhone, Stein said. These “tests illustrate changes in brain activity by showing changes in blood flow,” Stein reminded a crowd thick with neuroscience concentrators.

Blood flow and activity in the activated brain region, the insular cortex, only have about a 33 percent correlation with the feeling of love. The rest of the time, that activity is associated with hate or disgust, Stein said. Students agreed that the conclusion that subjects were in love with their iPhones is a gross oversimplification.

As love or lie detectors, fMRI machines “are not a diagnostic tool by any stretch,” Stein said, reiterating that the article in question was published as an op-ed. “There’s a reason why this isn’t in the Science Times,” he said.

Stein used a lull in the discussion to size up its participants. “Scientists are very good at picking things apart. We’re very critical people, and we want to be our own critics,” he said.

Stein said what was most problematic was presenting results in the unscientific fashion of “this is what we found, and this is the only conclusion there can be.”

“Good science” relies on precise methods to separate conclusions into three components ­— those closely supported by results, ones that are projected and those that are simply “interesting questions” to raise, he said.

“And the most interesting kinds of questions are the ones with very inconclusive answers,” Stein said.

“When it first came out, fMRI was critical,” Stein said after the talk. But the tests only address one side of things, he said. The “motion” in the scientific community now is to find ways to combine the perspectives offered by fMRI and other tests, including electroencephalograms and single-cell recordings.

“It’s depressing to realize how little you know,” said Robin Martens ’14, a neuroscience concentrator, after the discussion. “It’s the Socratic thing — I’m more aware of my own ignorance,” he said.

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