Within the last month, Wired magazine’s Mark Anderson and author Tom Wolfe, in an interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle, did something rarely seen in the manic world of neuroscience reporting. They broke rank with the chorus of hypesters, saying, in essence, that we barely know what we think we know about the human brain. It was a stark departure from the usual drumbeat of flackery and dubious extrapolation common to the topic.
In the Wolfe interview by Steve Heilig, Wolfe appeared to backtrack from his own hyping of neuroscience in Hooking Up, his 2000 book about attraction in America, by saying he is fascinated by evidence of how little we actually know about the brain. In his words, theorists, and the reporters who give them ink, “are writing literature, which doesn’t mean they are wrong, but they don’t have a scientific leg to stand on. They literally don’t know what they are talking about.”
Call it a moment of clarity for a newspaper more prone to run articles like February’s, “Stressed at work? Rewire your brain!”. That article, by Chris Colin, was basically an advertorial posing as a news story about the Napa, California “peak performance” enhancement company ProAttitude - which uses “neuroscience … guided imagery … cognitive behavior therapy, humanistic psychology, positive psychology, and a form of learned optimism” to reduce workplace stress. The story concluded with, “ProAttitude is hosting a three-day workshop in Mill Valley.”
Similarly, Wired’s April issue is a bit schizo itself. Anderson’s criticism of neuroscience is contained in a succinct sidebar that injects a dose of reality into a fawning feature by Gary Wolf about eternal life guru Ray Kurzweil. “Almost nothing is known about how the brain produces awareness, and current models of brain function don’t accord with the little that is known,” Anderson writes; he then offers a point-by-point takedown of the accompanying feature and neuroscience hype in general. Specifically, Anderson rebuts the notion that brains are like computers and that advances in neuro- and computer science will enable the sixty-year-old Kurzweil to download his consciousness into a machine and extend his life to some time past 2030.
Wired’s parroting of neuro-hype is more in tune with the almost-daily strains of flackery and extrapolation found in some of the nation’s top newspapers.
On March 31, The New York Times perpetuated the promulgation of “neuropunditry” that began last November on its op-ed pages with a news story of the same ilk. In “Is the Ad A Success? The Brain Waves Tell All”, reporter Stuart Elliott states that “Madison avenue is all about the brain waves” and then details dubious EEG (electroencephalographic brain scan) focus groups, quoting proponents like a Virgin Mobile vice president who says, “You actually see what they think and feel.” Well, no, you don’t. How electrical activity in certain parts of the brain (which EEG measures) translates to specific thoughts and feelings is poorly understood. And what anyway, are the multi-million dollar lessons advertisers learned from such dubious techniques? Have a good lead and use a twist. Genius.
The Los Angeles Times followed a similar trail into the “neuropunditry” morass, following up on a dubious neuropunditry op-ed from December with a February news story on EmSense, an oft-quoted company in neuroscience articles that purports to divine voters’ specific feelings/opinions from neuroimaging techniques such as EEG. There’s not much evidence to support anything more than conclusions about whether or not a test subject is paying attention to a certain candidate when viewed, and that may change, but reporter Denise Gellene surely pleased her corporate sources by giving the marketing buzz an early push.