Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Brain Scans

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, June 04, 2008 | Category: , , |

I just read this blog post from Cognitive Daily. I was really unimpressed with the level of criticism involved in it. They discuss how images of brain scans increase the likelihood of people believing the content of an article, or at least rating it in terms of scientific worth. Personally I think it's all down to the sample. They give no indication of the level of proficiency of the individuals sampled. The problem with neuroimagery is that they require expertise in order to understand them properly. Do I think that people who see a picture of a brain with areas of it lighting up are possibly going to be more convinced than reading just an article without said picture. Yes, why not? The picture gives evidence in another medium. Moreover, the picture of the brain is a frame that makes them believe the thing that they see and it allows them to relate to the image, whereas if it just contained a bar graph with indications of the data (which actually also requires data to understand) it wasn't rated as highly. Does this mean something substantive? In my mind, no. Pictures of brain scans are WAY COOLER than bar graphs. Assuming I had to read an article about neuroscience, or neuroeconomics, or whatever and I got to see pictures of a brain scan, I would think it was better than an article that didn't have said pictures, simply because I thought it was cooler and possibly more convincing as a consequence of its coolness. The studies that they cite don't do that. See the picture taken from the blog below.

Barring the random statement above about coolness, I think that there is a lacking in the blog post (or study, I don't know) because they do not describe the different disciplines of the individual subjects. There could feasibly be systematic differences in the different interpretations as a consequence of the discipline or the study area of the individuals. How many of the students were actually studying neuroscience? Did they systematically favour articles with brain scan images? How many of the individuals were familiar with the anatomy of the brain? How many of them were well-trained in critically assessing articles? Were they freshmen? In which case I don't think they've probably been properly trained yet in critical thinking. Then again I could be wrong, but these are valid criticisms in my mind.

And also, don't get me started on the fact that they used fake articles. A part from the Sokal hoax where I think it was justifiable, I am not convinced that we should use fake things, or lie to experimental subjects, i.e. if the paper contained a fake study that lied about correlations to people they could leave the experiment with false beliefs about some state of the world, even if they were told afterwards that what they were reading was fake. Bad experiments in my mind, bad experiments.

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