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[ Wed. Jul. 8. 2009 ]

The humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Assessing the growing mountain of toxic intellectual debt, Philip Gerrans considers going short on some overvalued research.. ...

...The academic market is also like the financial market in another way. Stocks trade above their value, which leads to bubbles and crashes. Brain- imaging studies, for example, are a current bubble, not because they don't tell us anything about the brain, but because the claims made for them so vastly exceed the information they actually provide. As with a leveraged investment in mortgage bonds hedged by a foreign-exchange credit swap, most customers have no idea how a brain-imaging result is produced and what it is really worth. Those who do - the ones in labs using complicated statistical algorithms to map impossibly messy signals to artificial 3D models of brains - are usually very circumspect about the results. But every week we read in the science pages that brain-imaging studies prove X, where X is what the readers or columnists already believe. Women can't read maps! Men like sex! Childhood trauma affects brain development! There is an Angelina Jolie neuron! The bosses of big labs that employ hundreds of people use these studies, along with artfully placed articles about them, to get funding for future research. In a similar way, directors of mining companies raise funds on the basis of prospecting reports "leaked" to the financial press.

Consider, as an unrivalled piece of hyperbole, this statement from the websiteEdge.org, which aims "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge" by seeking out "the most complex and sophisticated minds". It is by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a brilliant experimental neuroscientist as well as a master publicist: "The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution ... is the single most important 'unreported' (or at least, unpublicised) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."
That's not very likely. Mirror neurons are neurons in the monkey premotor cortex that are active both when a monkey produces an action such as grasping, and when it observes the action. No one yet knows quite why there is an overlap in patterns of neural activity. Ramachandran would like to find out, so he has made his pitch to investors. They know he has done some beautiful experiments and he is a charismatic public performer and Edge.org regular, so we can expect the mirror neuron boom to continue for a while. ...

[ED. NOTE: Philip Gerrans writes: "So we can expect the mirror neuron boom to continue for a while". Is nine years enough time to make this point? See Ramachandran's Edge essay "Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind 'the great leap forward' in human evolution" published on June 1, 2000. —JB]