Training a Skeptical Eye on Neuroscience

by Syd M. Johnson

November 3, 2009

Despite the ubiquity of digitally altered or simply fake images, we still cling to the naïve belief that “pictures don’t lie.” And studies show that we’re particularly susceptible to the allure of images that require expert interpretation, such as the colorful pictures gleaned from functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) and other brain imaging technologies, says ethicist Jonathan Marks.

The professor of bioethics, humanities and law at Pennsylvania State University spoke to a diverse audience of neuroethicists, clinicians, researchers, philosophers and social scientists gathered for Brain Matters: New Directions in Neuroethics, a conference held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in late September.

In his speech, “A neuroskeptic’s guide to neuroethics and national security,” Marks argued that we should maintain “a healthy skepticism about the implications of uses for neuroscience, particularly for nontherapeutic purposes.” He added that there are reasons to be especially concerned about “the ways in which national security may pervert neuroscience.”

Marks recounted how psychologists and neuroscientists were recruited to assist in the interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and to shore up dubious claims that, for example, “enhanced interrogation techniques” are actually enhanced in their effectiveness. In the relationship between neuroscientific and national security experts, “the initiates of one domain are too enthralled by the other, and critical faculties are not engaged,” Marks warned.

This is especially a problem, he argued, when neuroscientific claims are accepted uncritically because of the phenomenon of “explanatory neurophilia.” This blind love of neuroscientific explanation can make bad science sound good. “There’s a real danger that pseudoscience or pseudo-neuroscience will become a vehicle for the abuse of those perceived to be a threat to national security,” Marks said.

The problem of explanatory neurophilia is widespread, and the multiplicity of brain images in the scientific and popular press both feeds and exploits the phenomenon. Research has shown that readers attribute greater scientific value to articles summarizing neuroscientific research when they are accompanied by brain images, regardless of the content of such articles or the quality of the reasoning contained in them. Brain images are seemingly revelatory, Marks noted, even though they are “essentially meaningless to the uninitiated.”

When images require expert interpretation, something Marks calls the “image-expert bootstrap” occurs—an image requiring interpretive expertise validates the expert interpreter, while the act of interpretation gives meaning to an otherwise incomprehensible image. This results in a deceptively attractive circularity: The image tells us how important the expert is, while the expert tells us how important the image is. If non-experts are not in a position to challenge the interpreter’s expertise, it is very hard to break the circle. As a consequence, the listener does not challenge misinformation, misunderstanding or overextended claims.

The lack of judicial gatekeepers in the national security context is of great concern to Marks, who believes that vulnerable populations such as detainees (and potentially, soldiers) are susceptible to abuse through the misuse of neuroscientific technologies, including brain imaging and psychoactive drugs. It is time, he said, for a national discussion on the “wicked problems that we call on these technologies to address.” In this debate, the neuroscientific and neuroethical communities must “be frank with the public about the potential, the limitations and the perils of neuroscience.” Failure to do so, he warned, risks abandoning and imperiling the vulnerable, and if we do that, “tomorrow’s historians and science scholars will likely not look kindly on us.”

The neuroskepticism articulated by Marks was a common topic of discussion at the Brain Matters conference, with several speakers voicing variations on the theme. Psychiatrist David Healy professed doubts about the superiority of brain scans and neuro-imaging to tried-and-true electroencephalographs (EEGs). Philosopher Walter Glannon expressed concerns over inflated claims about the ability of positron emission tomography (PET) and fMRI to reveal what’s really going on in the brain or the mind. Glannon, Canada research chair in medical bioethics and ethical theory, considered the relevance of neuroimaging technologies to the age-old philosophical debate on free will and sounded a note frequently heard at the conference: “Correlation is not causation.” Inferential evidence of brain activity, he concluded, doesn’t add anything to the discussion of free will and moral responsibility.

In a speech closing the conference, Neil Levy, a philosopher at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and the editor of the journal Neuroethics, proposed a dual role for the still nascent discipline of neuroethics: Not only should the field consider the ethics of neuroscience (which has been the traditional domain of neuroethics), it should also use the neuroscience of ethics to study the tools with which we think morally.

Levy argued for expanding work in the incipient philosophical discipline of experimental philosophy to add new methodologies to neuroethical debate, to make philosophy more reflexive and to consider questions that get to the very core of the ethical mind. A convergence of cognitive psychology and social science could probe such questions as “Can a neuroscience of ethics show that particular moral intuitions are unreliable?” Levy said. The answers could give new force to our moral judgments, or, perhaps, reveal them to be less sound than we think they are.

Brain Matters drew more than 110 attendees and speakers from North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, and the breadth and scope of topics addressed at the conference was global as well. Physicians, philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, legal scholars, roboticists, bioethicists and social scientists addressed and debated issues as diverse as cognitive enhancement, postpartum mood disorders, non-human animal minds, brain death, free will and neurodiversity.