No, it's not a new study of people listening to The Sex Pistols while in fMRI machines (though that would make an awesome research project): rather, it's Stephen Poole's latest essay (in the New Statesman) on the misuse of neuroscience, particularly by what Evgeny Mozorov might describe as the "naked and the TED" set:
An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.
How's it work?
You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.
This all actually speaks to something I've been thinking about, and strategizing over, quite a bit. When I started working on the contemplative computing project, I was really taken with the brain science literature, and imagined drawing rather heavily on it in my own work.
the exploratorium, via flickr
After a couple months, though, I found myself backing away from that, and the finished book (which is making its way through the offices of Little, Brown at this very moment) refers to but doesn't rely on neuroscience much at all.
So what happened?
the underground, via flickr
First of all, being in Cambridge, I was within striking distance of some very good people in the field, and a few conversations with them-- the Eagle attracts as many scientists as it did when Watson and Crick hung out there-- convinced me that while current work in neuroscience is very interesting, you can't responsibly extrapolate from it to make the sorts of claims I would have made.
the eagle, via flickr
It's a challenge to speak to general audiences about technical subjects-- hell, it's hard to speak to expert audiences about technical subjects-- and you don't do anyone any favors by introducing error into the conversation.
the exploratorium, via flickr
My boss at Microsoft Cambridge trained in the philosophy of mind, and he was very insistent that I pay attention to the difference between mind and brain in my writing, and be clear about which one I was really talking about.
if you see the buddha on the shelf… via flickr
Just as important, I realized that Buddhist writings provide a really well-developed language for talking about the mind. Indeed, there was very little I needed to say about consciousness or the mind that wasn't very old, pretty commonsensical, and verifiable by people on their own; they didn't have to take my claims on faith, nor did they need their own neuroscience lab to check things out for themselves.
So I ended up quite content to write a book that I think can be read and enjoyed by people who love Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer and Susan Greenfield, but which doesn't rely so heavily on neuroscience. And I think it'll be a better book because of that.
Not that I wouldn't mind to break into the ranks of people who can pay the mortgage (or the second mortgage) by giving keynotes at swank corporate affairs. I just want to do it by talking about complicated things in ways that make them accessible to people, not by talking about complicated things in ways that make me look smart but mislead the audience.