Neuroscientists: neither angels nor devils be

John Horgan, a science writer of some repute, has a new post up at Scientific American in which he takes neuroscientists to task for selling out (actually, his title is even more inflammatory, but that’s just journalism for you).

John begins by commenting upon a trend that has been going on for some time: the military has begun to reach out to neuroscience for innovation.  He particularly excoriates high profile neuroscientists who composed the Committee on Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications for the National Research Council and the report that they produced entitled “Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications“.  The report is free to download, and having read it when it was first released and then revisiting it after seeing John’s post, I am scratching my head, wondering what John is going on about.  Rather than promoting the sorts of nightmare scenarios that one might imagine Dr. Strangelove drooling over, the report makes a series of sensible recommendations that generally deal with capitalizing upon advances in neuroscience to improve training, reduce stress, treat PTSD, and other applications of neuroscience to military personnel. To this reader, this all seems rather humane. [I would only hope that other militaries as well as innocent civilians who suffer from what has euphemistically been called ‘collateral damage’ could benefit from these advances as well.]

One could take that stance that any collaboration with the military is immoral, but it seems to me that such a position is hard to defend.  I am no military booster, but I try to live in a reality-based universe.  If there are going to be soldiers (and it seems that the situation is going to be with us for at least the near future), we should do what we can to insure that they are taken care of as well as possible.  More to the point, the authors of the report seem to have been very careful to couch their recommendations in terms that do not encourage the use of neuroscience as an offensive weapon.  So my question for John is, “Where’s the beef?”  OK, it is a rhetorical question because I know what John’s beef is.  He thinks that neuroscientists should be as pure as driven snow, and suggests that the report is a bald effort to divert military funding to neuroscience labs. Sorry John, but I must demur.  You appear to have aimed your rhetoric at the wrong target.

Continuing on the topic of the sins of neuroscientists, John goes on to make a second point which is just plain wrong. Citing the recent rise in brain fitness software, he pans the entire field of neurobics as hucksters and charlatans.  Surely, there is some hyperbole out there, as there is with any commercial product. One might suggest caveat emptor applies here, but it is also reasonable to argue that people with failing memories are somewhat more vulnerable than someone who is cognitively intact. [I recently attended a 2 day conference on brain fitness software (my conference report is here), and one of the discussion points that emerged from the meeting was that some form of oversight is probably appropriate, perhaps not full FDA approval but something more akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval – look for this in the not-too-distant future.]

But John is absolutely incorrect when he lambasts Michael Merzenich and Posit Science for overstating their claims.  The tests (or at least some of the tests) offered by this company have undergone a randomized, double blind clinical trial, perhaps the highest hurdle for any therapeutic.  [I guess that is what they mean when they say ‘clinically proven’.]  Frankly, John should know better.  Even if he didn’t read the paper which describes the results from the clinical, the article in Scientific American which John cites to back up his (incorrect) claims makes this all quite clear. From the concluding paragraph.

One thing remains clear: there is no serious harm to brain training other than the effect on your wallet (and the risk of some egg on your face if your seven-year old can play them better). And evidence is accumulating that they not only improve the skills they are designed to help, but likely generalize to other cognitive abilities and have some long-lasting benefits. If you’re working at them now, we advise you to keep it up!

Sorry John.  Two shots.  Two misses.

It is hardly the case that neuroscientists are all angels.  I know quite a few of them, and have found that every version of human foible is expressed by their brains as well.  When they ‘sin’, it is fair to point it out. What surprises me is that neither John nor the fact checkers at Scientific American did their homework. Were his article to be an essay submitted to me by a student for a neuroethics course, I would have a hard time giving it a passing grade.

[Our policy on this blog is not to endorse any particular commercial product.  My comments should not be construed as an endorsement, but rather as clarifying issues that emerge from the science.  For clarity, I have no ties, financial or otherwise, to Posit Science or any other company in the neurobics field.]

Photo credit: Airpark


5 thoughts on “Neuroscientists: neither angels nor devils be

  1. I think John Hogan is saying that there is no solid proof that the $400 posit product is better than free alternatives. That is what the Scientific American article he cites is saying. Also, a “statistically significant improvement” in a double blind study does not mean a real improvement in everyday life. It means an improvement in whatever variable they are measuring, and an improvement that may be very small. (I didn’t check the study). The posit stuff is one of 3 brain-related infomercials that regularly pollute public TV where I live (NJ). Clearly giving Neuroscience a bad name.

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  3. Nicely done, Peter.

    The attention that brain training has been receiving, particularly the negative attention, seems to confirm that it is on its way. And I don’t mean on its way out.

    All scientific breakthroughs, particularly the more revolutionary ones, present a challenge for those who prefer established truths over new truths. The established truths in this case are that our brain capacity is fixed, that intelligence can’t be improved, and that mental decline is inevitable. All of this has been disproved over the past decade. Fred Gage has shown that neurogenesis produces new brain cells in adults, scientists have shown that working memory training increases intelligence (Jaeggi / Buschkuehl PNAS 2008) and several studies, such as the one you quote, indicate that we can stave off or reverse some of the mental declines associated with aging.

    Bring on the critics — brain training is here to stay!

    Martin Walker
    Founder, President
    Mind Evolve LLC

  4. Peter,

    I do not generally disagree with your comments here, but do think it relevant to note that the collaboration of cognitive scientists with American military entities in the 20th century does NOT inspire confidence that the resultant protocols and products will ultimately be for the benefit of the soldiers and veterans. And this statement is putting the history exceedingly mildly.

    Of course, the question for anyone thinking critically about history in general is what is the relevance of that history of contemporary practices. Is it simply the case that these were bad things done by bad people, and contemporary efforts are uniformly composed of good people doing good things? This is a common belief as to research ethx, and it is one I find deeply flawed for a number of reasons. I rather think history, especially the history of unethical research in the 20th century — and the extensive American military involvement in that history — provides some powerful warnings about the peril such collaborations may risk.

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