What are the limits of neuroscience?

[My answer to a recent Quora question.]

There are two major problems with neuroscience:

  1. Weak philosophical foundations when dealing with mental concepts
  2. Questionable statistical analyses of experimental results

1. Neuroscience needs a bit of philosophy

Many neuroscientific results are presented without sufficiently nuanced  philosophical knowledge. This can lead to cartoonish and potentially harmful conceptions of the brain, and by extension, of human behavior, psychology, and culture. Concepts related to the mind are among the hardest to pin down, and yet some neuroscientists give the impression that there are no issues that require philosophical reflection.

Because of a certain disdain for philosophy (and sometimes even psychology!), some neuroscientists end up drawing inappropriate inferences from their research, or distorting the meaning of their results.

One particularly egregious example is the “double subject fallacy”, which was recently discussed in an important paper:

“Me & my brain”: exposing neuroscience’s closet dualism.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Our intuitive concept of the relations between brain and mind is  increasingly challenged by the scientific world view. Yet, although few  neuroscientists openly endorse Cartesian dualism, careful reading  reveals dualistic intuitions in prominent neuroscientific texts. Here,  we present the “double-subject fallacy”: treating the brain and the  entire person as two independent subjects who can simultaneously occupy  divergent psychological states and even have complex interactions with  each other-as in “my brain knew before I did.” Although at first, such  writing may appear like harmless, or even cute, shorthand, a closer look  suggests that it can be seriously misleading. Surprisingly, this  confused writing appears in various cognitive-neuroscience texts, from  prominent peer-reviewed articles to books intended for lay audience. Far  from being merely metaphorical or figurative, this type of writing  demonstrates that dualistic intuitions are still deeply rooted in  contemporary thought, affecting even the most rigorous practitioners of  the neuroscientific method. We discuss the origins of such writing and  its effects on the scientific arena as well as demonstrate its relevance  to the debate on legal and moral responsibility.

[My answer to the earlier question raises related issues: What are the limits of neuroscience with respect to subjectivity, identity, self-reflection, and choice?]

2. Neuroscience needs higher data analysis standards

On a more practical level, neuroscience is besieged by problems related to bad statistics. The data in neuroscience (and all “complex system” science) are extremely noisy, so increasingly sophisticated statistical techniques are deployed to extract meaning from them. This sophistication means that  fewer and fewer neuroscientists actually understand the math behind the statistical methods they employ. This can create a variety of problems, including incorrect inferences. Scientists looking for “sexy” results can use poorly understood methods to show ‘significant’ effects where there really is only a random fluke. (The more methods you use, the more chances you create for finding a random “statistically significant” effect. This kind of thing has been called “torturing the data until it confesses”.)

Chance effects are unreproducible, and this is a major problem for many branches of science. Replication is central to good science, so when it frequently fails to occur, then we know there are problems with research and with how it is reviewed and published. Many times there is a “flash in the pan” at a laboratory that turns out to be fool’s gold.

See these article for more:

Bad Stats Plague Neuroscience

Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience

The Dangers of Double Dipping (Voodoo IV)

Erroneous analyses of interactions in neuroscience: a problem of significance.

Fixing Science, Not Just Psychology – Neuroskeptic

The Replication Problem in the Brain Sciences

Quora: What are the limits of neuroscience?