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.]
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