On Super Tuesday, CNN broadcast a weak science news segment about a brain-imaging machine that the reporter called a “neurological lie detector test.” The point?
Voters may say that they prefer one candidate, but the brain actually knows better … It’s not a lie, but an unarticulated truth … [and brain imaging] may prove to be better than polling at determining what a voter does in the voting booth.
The segment appears to be the third time this campaign season that “neuropunditry” has crept into the mainstream media. The term belongs to Slate’s Dan Engber, who, in addition to coining a great candidate for Word of the Year, has done an excellent job policing the new, quasi-scientific trend.
In the CNN segment, reporter Randi Kaye teams up with Lucid Systems, a market research firm, to map the brain waves of eight, undecided California voters as they watch videos of the Republican and Democrat presidential debates. The voters are hooked up to a variety of sensors that measure “arousal” and “emotion.” When both of those spike while watching a candidate speak, no matter what the voter may say, he or she has been “moved”-a “positive response.” Lucid Systems co-founder Dave Remer tells Kaye, “We look directly into their mind and body and see what’s going on.”
Actually, that’s a big stretch.
The company’s sensors measure things like perspiration, facial muscle movement, and electrical conductivity on the scalp. All of these are reliable indicators of activity in certain parts of the brain, which are associated with certain emotional responses. There are many responses associated with each area of the brain, however, and as promising as imaging may be, it hasn’t come close to “directly” identifying the exact emotions in play. In producing the clip, and brandishing color, three-dimensional images of the head, CNN seems to have fallen for a bit of techno infatuation. As Engber put it in Slate, “The network shamelessly inflated this rather old-fashioned study with the image of a mind-reading computer that can predict tonight’s outcome at the polls.”
As specious as it was, though, CNN’s report was not the most objectionable piece of neuropunditry this season.
The first incident occurred in early November, when The New York Times published an op-ed by three neuroscientists, one public policy expert, and three political consultants touting the results of a study of twenty swing voters. It used functional magnetic resonance imaging and attempted to parse voters’ true feelings about candidates. The op-ed goes farther than CNN’s report, claiming that “Our results reveal some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.”
There are two fundamental reasons why the Times should not have published the op-ed. First of all, in language and tone it purports to be a scientific study when many of the conclusions amount to pseudo-science. Enger was the first to offer a rebuttal, in which he argued that, “To liken these neurological pundits to snake-oil salesmen would be far too generous.” A group of seventeen neuroscientists wrote a letter to the Times the same day, giving a detailed scientific refutation of the op-ed’s claims. A week later Nature, one of the world’s leading, peer-reviewed scientific journals, published an editorial chastising the Times for “disseminating this information to millions of their readers who may not have the background to recognize for themselves the absurdity of some of the authors’ conclusions.” They go on to call it “a gross disservice to science and indeed to politics.”
Worse still, perhaps, is the fact that the authors basically duped the Times into publishing what amounted to free advertising. Both Engber and Nature criticize the authors’ affiliation with FKF Applied Research, a Washington, D.C.-based “neuromarketing” firm that sells brain scan research to Fortune 500 companies. As the latter noted, these affiliations were only “partially transparent,” and, “seducing The New York Times’ editors with the allure of Technicolor brains lighting up with Hillary Clinton angst yielded no more or less than a multimedia advertisement for the company’s product to millions of readers.”