Neuroscience wrongs will make a right The history of scientific discovery suggests that accepting most neuroscience is unsound is a big step towards a better understanding of the brain.
THE idea of putting a dead salmon in a brain scanner would be funny if it were not so serious.
When Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, tried it in 2009, he wasn’t expecting to find anything – he was just doing test runs on the machine. But when he looked at the data he got a shock. The fish’s brain and spinal column were showing signs of neural activity. There was no such activity, of course. The salmon was dead. But the signal was there, and it confirmed what many had been quietly muttering for years: there’s something fishy about neuroscience.
When fMRI brain scanners were invented in the early 1990s, scientists and the general public were seduced by the idea of watching the brain at work. It seems we got carried away. The field is plagued by false positives and other problems. It is now clear that the majority – perhaps the vast majority – of neuroscience findings are as spurious as brain waves in a dead fish (see “Hidden depths: Brain science is drowning in uncertainty“).
“The majority of findings in neuroscience are as spurious as brain waves in a dead fish”
That seems shocking, and not just because neuroscience has appeared to be one of the most productive research areas of recent years. Some of those dodgy findings are starting to make their way into the real world, such as in ongoing debates about the use of fMRI evidence in court.
Some historical perspective is helpful here, however. The problems are not exclusive to neuroscience. In 2005, epidemiologist John Ioannidis published a bombshell of a paper called “Why most published research findings are false”. In it he catalogued a litany of failures that undermine the reliability of science in general. His analysis concluded that at least half, and possibly a large majority, of published research is wrong.
Ioannidis might have expected anger and denial, but his paper was well received. Scientists welcomed the chance to debate the flaws in their practices and work to put them right.
Things are by no means perfect now. Scientists are under immense pressure to make discoveries, so negative findings often go unreported, experiments are rarely replicated and data is often “tortured until it confesses”. But – thanks in no small part to Ioannidis’s brutal honesty – all of those issues are now out in the open and science is working to address them. The kerfuffle over neuroscience is just the latest chapter in a long-running saga.
Genetics went through a similar “crisis” about a decade ago and has since matured into one of the most reliable sciences of all. The fact that neuroscience is facing up to its problems is the sign of a young discipline growing up. Some of the flashy discoveries about brain areas “for” love or religion will go the way of genes “for” intelligence, or whatever. But neuroscience will be more nuanced and powerful for it. This article appeared in print under the headline “First, get it wrong”