Why women love shopping, and other myths

Why does social neuroscience only tell us what what popular culture believes?
Denyse O'Leary | Feb 18 2009 | comment  

The world today is drowning in false knowledge -- the things we know that ain't really so. The false knowledge is often bolstered by apparent - but not real - science, typically driven by wicked new toys.

Social neuroscience is a major contender in the current false knowledge industry. This "discipline" depends on statistics derived from current brain imaging techniques.

As Newsweek's Sharon Begley, co-author of The Mind and the Brain, notes, social neuroscience supposedly shows why women love shopping, why gay guys read maps like women, why jealous guys (as opposed to gals)... Come to think of it, why does social neuroscience only tell us what we keep hearing from that high school drop-out cousin who listens to a lot of TV while shooting pool down in the rec room, between his split shifts at the loading dock?

But is this really science? Not likely, say a team of statisticians, who took a look at some such studies (Vuh et al, Perspectives on Social Neuroscience, 2009).

They found that many claimed correlations between brain and behaviour are unrealistically high. Over half of the social neuroscientists were, in their view, "cherry picking" the data. That is, they used only the data that demonstrated their thesis.

To arrive at conclusions that vindicate Cousin Eight Ball, they simply chose only the voxels (a neuroscience measure of active brain areas) that might help their thesis. Not the whole picture.

As Vuh's team notes, "More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases."

Don't worry if you lack statistics training. No hard math is needed. Basically, if you choose to observe only what supports your point, you will discover that your opinions are ... The Truth! Amazing -- but not science. The statisticians' paper suggests that the authors of the questioned studies re-analyse their data, using more conventional methods.

Here are three quick observations that may counter false knowledge retailed in popular media:

1. Everyone's brain is a constant sea of reorganization through life, so brains can be very different from each other. Forget claims that anyone knows what is happening in your brain, unless your neurosurgeon is offering an individual diagnosis. And heaven forbid that should happen.

2. Beware supposed science that merely tells us what popular culture believes without outside evidence. (Gentlemen prefer blondes, women go for tall guys...) Real science sheds light by challenging popular ideas. Relativity, anyone? Quantum theory? The intricate machinery inside the living cell? The language of the genome?

3. Always prefer common sense, based on evidence, to pop culture theories. The stuff cousin Eight Ball hears all the time on the rec room TV springs from psychological fads ("women love shopping"). These fads dominate a generation or two, and then dissipate. Common sense, by contrast, is based on millennia of observation. For example, common sense doesn't tell us that women love shopping, but rather that effective advertising, aimed at a vulnerable target, can create apparent (not necessarily real) needs. In a different culture, the same women would have celebrated their ability to practice thrift and drive a hard bargain.

False knowledge can sound ridiculous, but it isn't harmless. Many current applications of false knowledge are anti-religious. For example, the vast majority of findings from respected studies show that spirituality is good for us. So if we should hear otherwise from a just-announced social neuroscience study, well, see observation 3 above.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain The Spiritual Brain (Harper, 2007)

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