back to article The Great Brain Scan Scandal: It isn’t just boffins who should be ashamed

If the fMRI brain-scanning fad is well and truly over, then many fashionable intellectual ideas look like collateral damage, too. What might generously be called the “British intelligentsia” – our chattering classes – fell particularly hard for the promise that “new discoveries in brain science” had revealed a new …

  1. JimC

    Isn't it often the case, though, when a new field opens up, that the first thing to appear round it is a fringe of dubious or even pseudo science? It doesn't mean the field is fundamentally unsound, it just means that there's a need to back off and say hang on, what's really happening, what's truth and what's exaggeration.

    That seems to be what's being said by some of the critics too: the need to back off and see what the evidence really is. I don't doubt that its potentially possible to correlate brain activity with what people are thinking and experiencing. Whether the current tech (or indeed future tech) can do that reliably I'm not qualified to comment.

    1. Dave 126

      Yep, there will always be froth bat the edge of the rising tide of knowledge and the dry land of the unknown.

      It was curious that the article made no mention of the way that researchers are financed, and the pressure on them to chase grants and get their names on as many paper as possible. Oh well.

    2. Sil

      Dubious & pseudo sciences do not make sound foundations for sciences.

      The problem is compounded by the fact that the population at large doesn't understand basic mathematics and arithmetic, so it's very easy to make people believe anything under the veneer of science.

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Agreed, but even worse, the primary tool for the new area of science is suspect too, not just the (mis-) use of it.

      The real problem is that, like the subliminal adverts myth, it will be decades if not a century for many of the erroneous results to leave the human conciousness and probably longer before the advertisers stop using the snake oil results to steer their campaigns.

    4. Mark 85

      Part of the problem isn't just the financing of these things. It's the media frenzy that goes on. Most reporters don't seem to have a clue but they jump on the bandwagon and pretty soon.. it's "common knowledge" about such-and-such. And once a few brain-dead celebs take it up... all bets are off. A look a the case of vaccines and autism is a prime example of this.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I would suspect...

    Sadly a lot of science is possibly bias this way.

    For example, Radio 4 just did a show on photographs and development from the 1830s. Turns out Henry Talbot was refused when he offered to give the technology to botanists. Why? Because they feared the photos would not show the *right* information.

    So any form of science (scientific group) or study, has a risk of thinking it can decide what is right and wrong, instead of allowing the data or reality to decide.

    1. Dave 126

      Re: I would suspect...

      Botanical illustrations at the time were akin to diagrams - each plant represented in a similar way for ease of comparison. It can be hard, even with to day's cameras, to arrange a botanical subject in a consistent way.

      And that is before we think about the issue of colour reproduction.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I would suspect...

        While I agree about the diagrams... if you think the photos are counter-productive, perhaps reflect on the diagrams.

        When the DNA was imaged, and when atomic molecular machinery in the cell was imaged, we had to rethink our diagrams and understandings. At least on the intricate details we tended to skip over.

        Thinks like colouring the sample come to mind very quickly for methods to improve making specific photos over "bias" photos. :P

        Would it be dangerous to say that human interpretation is above record keeping of the actual data?

        Is it disingenuous to prefer the actual data plus human understanding, over just having opinion?

    2. tony72

      Re: I would suspect...

      For example, Radio 4 just did a show on photographs and development from the 1830s. Turns out Henry Talbot was refused when he offered to give the technology to botanists. Why? Because they feared the photos would not show the *right* information.

      That's not really comparable, and you're misrepresenting the situation in any case. If you want an engineer to build something for you, you don't give him a photo of the thing - he'll tell you that that's quite useless - you give him engineering drawings. Those engineering drawings don't look, to the untrained eye, much like the finished article, but they convey the essential information about the thing that the engineer needs to build it in a way that a photo can't.

      Likewise in the tradition of botanical illustrations, the drawings would emphasize the important information about a subject, with detail drawings of notable features and so forth. Botanists felt about early photographs the way the aforementioned engineer would feel about getting a photograph instead of engineering drawings; they're just not very useful. It wasn't about the photographs not showing the "right" information, it's about them not showing the important information.

      I'll leave you a couple of quotes from this page on the subject, which put things in the proper context;

      "As I began to meet more and more botanists during my quest, the reasons why photography failed to take hold in their field began to emerge. Talbot’s original term for photography – skiagraphy – carried some of the explanation. By necessity, the early photographs of plants were photograms, printed by contact and thus giving the view by transmitted light, not our normal way of seeing plants."


      "Another major drawback of photography for botanical illustration was the flip side of its very strength. Photography excelled at depicting a real-world object very precisely. However, botanists consulting an illustration wanted to observe what was typical for a type of plant, not what was specific to an individual specimen. In the end, this lack of ability to generalise the image was perhaps the single largest drawback of botanical photography."

  3. Dave 126

    We've lost a couple of good 'uns in the last year, Oliver Sacks and Umberto Ecco. (MP3 and transcript)

    What both have in common are sharp minds and human compassion, Sacks a celebrated physician and professor of neurology, and Ecco a philosopher, historian and novelist.

    Are there any hard numbers to show that mysticism has risen in recent years? I see inherent issues with attempting to quantify it - if you are relying on people self-reporting, then could it be that it is their vocabulary and not their behaviour that has changed.

    As for mindfulness - some of the most active, effectual people I know practice mindfulness with discipline. I also know a fair few people who both a bit New-Agey and a bit useless.

    Also, no justification was given for the assumption that people's behaviour is a reaction to how they perceive their relation to the organs of power, when it could be that it is their immediate environment that more strongly influences them. I find it plausible that people's perception of power does influence them, but it is also plausible that for many people it is intertwined with other issues, such as what their future job prospects might be. The idea that mysticism is a response to fighting in vain to change The System is also put forward by Adam Curtis in The Century of the Self. (Has anyone here heard anything of him lately? There's been nothing about him on the internet since the release of Bitter Lake, save for an appearance at a film festival. )

  4. Gordon 10

    There's a flaw with this article

    It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place. Having read the article I'm not sure I'm any clearer on that point.

    Probably if you are going to rant about something better make clear what you are ranting about otherwise its just noise.

    1. Dave 126

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      Same here - I've kept abreast of pop science for the last couple of decades and this 'fad' against which the author is railing is largely new to me.

      I found it a little unfocused, as well. There was talk of 'luvvies' (a word coined by Stephen Fry to describe thespians, and used in that sense by Private Eye) in the article, but not of actors. Still, if you want both actors and neuroscience being talked about by someone with insight and humanity, Oliver Sacks talks, amongst other things, what he learnt from the actor Robin Williams:

      (to avoid confusion, note that the interviewer is called Robyn Williams, a science journalist).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        >a word coined by Stephen Fry to describe thespians

        According to a fanboi at OED which cites him as first user in the 80's - Google Books Ngram (no pun intended) Viewer however picks up usage from the 60's.

      2. a_yank_lurker

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        I was aware of there was brain scan research but did not follow it very closely. I always had a problem with does one get a subject to a sort normal activity around an MRI machine. It seemed as if the experiment was having a profound if unintentional effect on the results.

      3. Don Dumb

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        @Dave 126 - "There was talk of 'luvvies' ... in the article, but not of actors."

        AO seems to use the term 'luvvies' in most of his articles, I noticed this a while back. Apparently he uses it as a catch all term to brand those with whom he disagrees. Considering that Andrew had a period of going out of his way to bash Stephen Fry, I can't help thinking he has a bit of a problem in this area.

        Personally, I find Andrew's meandering style, interspersed with many irrelevant attacks on vague groups of people to be unpleasant and detract from the point supposedly being made. I don't mind that Andrew makes cases or points I might disagree with, that's healthy counterpoint and actually I welcome that, don't want an echo chamber here.

        I've noticed that I know Andrew has written the article before reading it, simply from the headline and that isn't a compliment. This was also the case with Lewis.

        Andrew - please continue to write here but bear in mind that you come across badly in these articles in a way which I like to think doesn't fairly reflect you. I give you the benefit of the doubt that the intention is to be entertaining rather than dry but to me the manner in which the argument gets presented often comes across more as more like a Fox News rant than a well written comment piece. Perhaps read your articles and ask yourself if they are as humorous as you intended or if you have been stretching too far to throw stones at "the luvvie intelligensia" or whichever loose ambiguous group you want to fight against.

    2. m0rt

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      There is an air of exasperation in this article, and to be fair, I think it is justified. The underlying message is: Too much crap is given too much bias that finds its way into our everyday lives.

      You can see an example of this in the way politicians tend to react to things 'media' give time to. All it does is concentrate their energy on things that are really not important, and means they don't really govern effectively.

      "It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place."

      Thank you for speaking on behalf of all of us. It is good that some take up the mantle and claim to speaking the opinions of 'the people'.

    3. Sir Runcible Spoon

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      My only interest was that one day I might discover how it is I can control the sensation of 'goose-bumps' when it's supposed to be involuntary :)

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      > It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place.

      Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)

      Anon because I'm surrounded by these poor misguided souls.

      1. Small Furry Animal

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        "Anon because I'm surrounded by these poor misguided souls."

        Yup, I live in Islington too ;-)

      2. Commswonk

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)

        Surely the worst example is food fadism (or should that be facism?) where something that is perfectly acceptable one day is denounced the next as the worst thing you can possibly eat, only for it to be exonerated of most ill - effects sometime later?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: There's a flaw with this article

          "Surely the worst example is food fadism (or should that be facism?) where something that is perfectly acceptable one day is denounced the next as the worst thing you can possibly eat, only for it to be exonerated of most ill - effects sometime later?"

          I was in a queue for a coffee at work last week. Ahead of me were three rather ill looking women, gaunt, pale, large dark circles under their eyes with a fourth who appeared to be in robust good health. The healthy looking one ordered a cappuccino and then made a huge fuss about having it made with Soya "milk". One of the others commented that she didn't normally have soya milk. "No, but I went to see the holistic healer you recommended and she diagnosed me as lactose and gluten intolerant." The three half-dead then congratulated her and spent a lot of time "positive stroking" and yakking about their multiple allergies, intolerances and various ailments none of which had been diagnosed by a doctor, all by the "holistic healer".

          I used to work in an immunology department in a teaching hospital. Diagnosing food allergies and intolerances is an exacting process that takes a long time. Tests have to be done where the patient is put on a "bland diet" and then the suspect foods introduced one by one to see which causes symptoms. Then the foods have to be withdrawn and the patient observed to be sure the symptoms then go away to prove that there's a direct causal relationship between a food and the symptoms. The fake healers who prey on ignorance don't do any of this, they rely instead on "woo" in the form of crystals, spirit guides, snake oil salesmanship and plain old bullshit to convince some sucker that they have an illness that can only be cured by spending cash on product.

          Sadly many people seem to want to be ill (always with some diffuse, poorly characterised illness) so that they can feel "special". They can make a huge fuss in restaurants, supermarkets, at work and in coffee bars demanding that they get attention.

      3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        'Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)'

        Not specific enough. Most of this crap was around before MRI was invented. The flakiness comes first, attaching itself to concepts they don't understand is secondary.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There's a flaw with this article

        "Oh my god, it's everywhere. "Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism, ADHD, gender confusion, and antisocial fucktard behavior in general (except for criticism of these people, that is not tolerated)"

        '"Mindfulness". Positivism. Yoga-related bullshit. Homeopathy. Yes that is all rubbish.

        'SJW-type people grasping for biological explanations/justifications for autism' - what is wrong with looking for a biological explanation? Assuming it is biological in origin seems sensible and better than attributing it to some other things for example bad karma, bad parenting!!

        1. JimC

          Re: Assuming it is biological in origin seems sensible

          I rather think that assuming something must be caused by something else without evidence is rarely sensible.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: There's a flaw with this article

      "It assumes we knew and cared what this fad was in the first place. Having read the article I'm not sure I'm any clearer on that point."

      Nor am I. Maybe we've been reading the wrongright papers.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You mean Richard Dawkins was wrong...

    ... and that scientists are not always driven by absolute desire to further human understanding of nature through absolute evidence based research?

    Perhaps, they might also be humans and driven by desires to prove their ideas are correct (despite evidence to the contrary), or plain self promotion.

    I have seen a little neuroscience research and a lot of it is done to very high standards, but I have seen fMRI papers based on tiny data sets, where you could probably find any correlation you liked.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Quantum of Rubbish

    fMRI is dependent on quantum mechanics isn't it? May be this is just a side effect of various physicists' campaigns to prove that biology is all run by quantum spookiness. (cf Jim Al-Khalili last night on BBC4).

    1. Dave 126

      Re: Quantum of Rubbish

      No, no more than using X-rays to study anatomy is part of any physicist's 'campaign' to prove that life is based on high energy EMR.

      And in any case, Jim Al-Khalili's position isn't as strident as you suggest. See this review of one of his books here on New Scientist:

  7. Drem


    This mostly sounds like a more modern take on Phrenology.

    I wonder if Retrophrenology works as well with this, or if a new technique is required...

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon

      Re: Phrenology

      I think the next big thing will be sphinctology - an in-depth evaluation of the bumps/ridges/gaps and general condition of a sphincter so as to generate an 'arsehole' index.

      In a 0-10 kind of way, I'm probably a 6 on the sphinctology scale, but I might be doing myself a dis-service there :)

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Phrenology

        "In a 0-10 kind of way, I'm probably a 6 on the sphinctology scale, but I might be doing myself a dis-service there :)"

        Never mind old chap. I'm sure the tax man will be along shortly to give a full and proper service.

    2. Ed 13

      Re: Phrenology

      Interestingly phrenology caused a delay in the take up of the idea of functional areas of the brain in the early 20th century, as any time anyone suggested it, they were just dismissed as trying to re-introduce phrenology.

      However "phrenology heads" do make rather good mantle piece ornaments!

    3. Ilmarinen

      Re: Phrenology

      Indeed - Matt Briggs (he of "torturing the data to produce tiny P values") has a nice "told you so" piece on this -

      Scientism - so modern, and so much better than religion or philosophy ;-)

      (presses "Submit" @ 2040 UTC, expecting long delay 'cos Andrew always does MODERATION)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Re: Phrenology

        Andrew does not do moderation

        1. Ilmarinen

          MODERATION (Re: Phrenology)

          OK: As you say. My mistake.

          Must be some other reason for the delay that I've noticed with various articles & commentards. In this case 18 mins, but often hours. Any thoughts?

          (2110 UTC)

          1. Sir Runcible Spoon

            Re: MODERATION (Phrenology)

            I've noticed that certain issues that attract a lot of the mentally deficient in the main press gets moderated on here, such as Brexit for example. Just in case I expect.

        2. Vic

          Re: Phrenology

          Andrew does not do moderation

          But Andrew's articles always require it for comments...


    4. Dan S

      Re: Phrenology

      Many psychologists refer to large amounts of brain imaging research as the "new phrenology" or "blob-ology".

      Psychology students study the limits of techniques like fMRI and reasons why they should look at them critically. (Well, they do on the large Psychology BSc I run at a UK university. They also learn about a wide variety of research methods, from experimental to qualitative - along with all the associated pros and cons. The point is to give them the critical skills to evaluate the quality of research.)

      The media loves brain images and often use them to tell a very simplistic story, which then ends up as "common knowledge". I was at a management training course where the facilitator launched into left vs right brain thinking. As the psychologist in the room, I had to stop her and (politely) explain why this was utter BS. She just wanted a metaphor for different ways of thinking, but pitched it as scientific fact. Much the same as the way quantum physics gets hijacked to explain the paranormal, etc.

  8. Banksy

    More evidence

    As JimC alludes to in the first comment it may be that the fMRI images are showing us something interesting but we don't know how to interpret it yet. I'm just a layman, not any sort of scientist, but I would imagine IF (note big if) the EU projects or the BRAIN projects can tell us anything about how the brain really works (or give us more detail anyway) then we may also gain a better understanding of what the images are showing.

    @Gordon 10: The point is that there have been tons of papers studies recently saying 'This area of the brain lights up when [doing x / looking at Y / thinking about Z] so this area of the brain must control that / we can predict what people are thinking about or what they will do'. So the article is saying that there isn't necessarily a strong correlation and the fundamental assumption behind these ideas may be flawed. Apologies if this explanation is too patronising or you did get that part of it.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: More evidence

      "we can predict what people are thinking about or what they will do"

      Definitely one for the muppets. If you were able to identify thoughts from MRI scans that would mean that you'd have a map of brain function versus all possible thoughts. That means that all possible thoughts constitute a set small enough not only to be mapped but to be catalogued. It also means that any problem can be solved by consulting the catalogue for the thought that contains the answer.

  9. theModge

    You missed the key study in this area

    Some one put a dead salmon in an fMRI scanner and showed it lots of pictures, then ran some statistical tools and found trends in the data, too prove that the statistical tools could come up with false positives.

    I believe it's an open secret in the neuro imaging community that a) you need to be careful with the tools b) not everyone is. It's just another tool. You can make scary pictures with a microscope too....

    1. Little boy down the lane

      Re: You missed the key study in this area

      Thanks for that. Got a laugh from me.

    2. Allan George Dyer

      Re: You missed the key study in this area

      Got an IgNoble in neuroscience in 2012, too.

      1. theModge

        Re: You missed the key study in this area

        Got an IgNoble in neuroscience in 2012, too.

        That I did not know, but very well deserved none the less.

  10. David M

    Not very scientific

    I was never impressed by this type of brain science. It seemed rather like noticing that when you watch YouTube videos on your iPad, it gets warm in the top-left corner, therefore you understand how your iPad works.

  11. disgruntled yank

    Proustian neuroscience

    For a long time I used to go to bed early. It helped me missed bogus "science" coverage on the nightly news.

    1. Bruno de Florence

      Re: Proustian neuroscience

      The Proustian madeleine episode is well known in French culture. From eating a small cake, the Proustian character remembers all kinds of things from his youth. What is overlooked is the decision to eat a madeleine at that moment. Was it contingent, or directed? Another episode in the Proustian saga is the main character stumbling on a stone, which makes him remember all kinds of things from his past. The same question applies.

      There is a curious aspect to Proust's novel Time Remembered: nowhere in the text is the narrator named.

      Freud started by studying neurons, but quickly realised it was not there that the ghost in the machine could be found, but in its effects, pretty much in the way the existence of a black hole is inferred from the effects it has on the region of space where it resides.He called the aporia present in each subject Unbewusst, improperly translated in English as Unconscious.

      For those interested in pursuing those matters further, I recommend Eric Laurent's "Lost In Cognition: Psychoanalysis And Neurosciences".

      1. disgruntled yank

        Re: Proustian neuroscience

        I no longer have a copy of the novels around the office, but I think that the madeleine was accompanied by a lime-blossom tea, and that a relative offered the tea when the narrator turned up feeling under the weather. But it has been a long time since I read the book.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Proustian neuroscience

        "There is a curious aspect to Proust's novel Time Remembered: nowhere in the text is the narrator named."

        Memory plays strange tricks. For instance, Proust never wrote a novel called Time Remembered; he wrote a seven volume series called In search of lost time (A la récherche du temps perdu). The madeleine episode occurs in the first volume titled Swann's Way(Du côté de chez Swann). I think you may be confusing the overall title with the last book, Time Regained.

        Your post shows how when we remember things we get the general gist correct but usually get the details wrong. We all do it. I read the entire A la récherche in French for a bet at university, but I still have difficulty remembering the names of four of the volumes, and as for the characters, they're a blur.

        1. GrapeBunch

          Re: Proustian neuroscience

          "If you're going to call the author of "À la recherche du temps perdu" a loony, I shall have to ask you to step outside." Oops. There is no outside.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sounds to me . .

    . . . like someone is clinging desperately to 'a ghost in the machine'.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Sounds to me . .

      Report it to Section 9, the Major may be interested

  13. Paul Smith

    Given how this intelligentsia reacts to criticism,

    "Given how this intelligentsia reacts to criticism,"... No risk of you falling into that camp then.

    Please don't take this as a criticism, but I am not actually sure what your criticism is. The machine shows the researchers what it sees, how they choose to interpret that data is up to them, but, in theory at least, their conclusions and assertions are supposed to be peer reviewed prior to publication (you were referring to peer reviewed papers weren't you?) and if they were publishing rubbish, as you seem to be suggesting, that suggests a problem with the review or publishing process, not with the machine or underlying science.

    1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Given how this intelligentsia reacts to criticism,

      I'm referring to the appetite for behaviourist explanations from the political class. This demand creates the supply (and even funds it). The demand is the incentive to cut corners, and pump out impressive-sounding rubbish. Scientists (even trick cyclists in psychology) don't operate in a vacuum.

  14. Kubla Cant

    “Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge,” boasted Professor Stephen Hawking at the start of his bestseller The Grand Design.

    I don't think Professor Hawking actually knows what philosophy is for. It's not a quest for knowledge so much as a quest for meta-knowledge.

    The brain-scanning fad always looked to me like phrenology with the skull removed. I'm glad to find my prejudice confirmed.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "I don't think Professor Hawking actually knows what philosophy is for."

      Important scientists know a great deal about, typically, rather narrow subjects. And Prof. Hawking, due to his physical limitations, has even less opportunity than most to talk to people from other disciplines.

      When it comes to areas outside their own field, scientists tend to know no more and possibly less than any reasonably well read lay person. There is no reason why Prof. Hawking should know any more about philosophy than I do, or any reason why I should pay special attention to his views. Any more than I would pay special attention to, say, a violinist on the subject of IT security or a semiconductor physicist on the subject of climate change.

      It's all part of what A Orlowski is complaining about. Skinner's behaviourism was an attempt to get rid of the woo-woo in psychology by treating organisms as a black box and avoiding speculation about what was going on inside. At the moment we don't have a debugger for brains, hence people will speculate. The problem is when they and the media treat speculation as knowledge.

      1. You aint sin me, roit

        Re: "I don't think Professor Hawking actually knows what philosophy is for."

        I wouldn't be so sure.

        Theoretical physicists, and more particularly mathematicians, are [i]very[/i] concerned with philosophy. There are always the philosophical questions surrounding "What does this mean in the universe as we perceive it?", or even the more basic "What is reality?". As for Hawking's physical limitations... neither of us know, but maybe he spends a lot of time just "thinking".

        Hawking's argument is that theoretical physics has progressed so rapidly over the last century, and has drawn from so much pure mathematics, that philosophers have been left behind. The amount of mathematics and physics knowledge required to get a grip (and not just a lay person whose read a book) on current theoretical physics is a considerable hurdle. It's no longer "philosophers" asking questions about reality, it's scientists and mathematicians. A "reasonably well read lay person" will not understand relativity or quantum mechanics. A "reasonably well read lay person" might be familiar with Godel's incompleteness theorem, but won't be able to understand the proof or its implications.

    2. Commswonk

      I'm glad to find my prejudice confirmed.

      Confirmation bias alert.

      I'm still trying to decide if Kubla Cant was being deliberately mischievous or not...

    3. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      There's a grand tradition of distinguished physicists approaching retirement deciding to solve the problems of philosophy. The general response of philosophers to there ideas is a long the lines of "well that was a good solution when Aristotle/Hume/Kant/Russel first proposed it".

      @You aint sin me, roit

      "As for Hawking's physical limitations... neither of us know, but maybe he spends a lot of time just "thinking"."

      That's the problem: Philosophy is done by thinking but you can no more do real philosophy by "just thinking" than you can do real science without peer review. Without the social structures of science even the greatest genius will end up a crank the way Newton and Tesla did. When the genius is a scientist trying to do philosophy the problem is only exacerbated.

      As for philosophers not understanding science: It's pretty common for academic philosophers to have degrees in other disciplines. Unsurprisingly, physics is a favourite in that respect.

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    So to misquote Adkins

    All science is done with numbers, not opinions, as well.

    A very depressing demonstration of real human nature (not the sort fMRI claimed to show) at work.

  16. Mage Silver badge

    Other fads

    Also computer "Neural Networks" may be totally unrelated to how real brains work. AI learning is unrelated to how biological creatures work.

    We still don't really know what intelligence is.

    Most AI (all?) is merely simulation of real world activities in a very narrow domain. Let me know when your Go playing computer can learn poker or playing an instrument just by natural learning, no sneaking round the back and adding more libraries.

    1. Dave 126

      Re: Other fads

      >no sneaking round the back and adding more libraries.

      It was the AlphaGo computer which created its own libraries. That was kind of the point.

      Nobody was claiming it was Skynet, but it was an advance on what went before.

    2. De Facto

      Re: Other fads - AI is based on stats too

      AI algorithm that recently won in the Go game, was based on Deep Learning method. It statistically models a network of millions of "math neurons". Lee Sedol won 1 out of 5 games, playing against Google's Alpha Go machine and its team of 100 scientists. Error rate of AI stats driven Deep Learning software obviously was 20%, if one assumed all decisions were taken just by the AI neural network software. A well-known is 50%-85% average error rate in dodgy statistics. It took Google about 100 computer scientists to feed the Alpha Go database with millions of past historic documented Go games. Without that massive data fed into Googles computers to search for the best move, Lee Sedol would probably have still won all 5 games. Alpha Go scientists acknowledged themselves, that neural network stats in Alpha Go were combined with trivial and deterministic scanning by computer of all past Go games. Human memory and speed of thinking is no match for a computer at trivial tasks processing data at large volume. Perhaps Deep Learning AI, based on statistics algorithms alone, is just another fad fMRI type? Did Google and few other billion revenue companies just dump their "next big thing" AI software to open source for all the world's dogs to use?

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Other fads - Deap Learning

        Sound to me that "Deep Learning" in Google's Go machine is mostly human curated database.

        Google are database experts that sell adverts, I'd be sceptical of any AI claims by Facebook or Google, given their "truth" record and their business models.

        1. Paul Kinsler

          Sound to me that "Deep Learning" in Google's Go machine is mostly human curated database.

          Hmm. Human chess players not infrequently discuss and analyze famous games, replay them with variations, read books about openings and endgames. It seems reasonable to me that Go players might well do the same. If Human players can make use of a "curated database", surely the computer players can also?

          Although it'd be interesting to see the computers make their own curated database by playing themselves. Perhaps they could then write a book about "how to play" for the humans who need help :-)

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Sound to me that "Deep Learning" in Google's Go machine is mostly human curated database.

            > Although it'd be interesting to see the computers make their own curated database by playing themselves.

            Someone wrote a program that did just that for Corewars in the 90s. Random mutation and survival of the fittest. I ran it overnight once and ended up with a piece of spaghetti code than no human-designed program could beat... in a sort of logic game with too many possibilities for humans to have a fighting chance, mind you.

      2. GrapeBunch

        Re: Other fads - AI is based on stats too

        "It took Google about 100 computer scientists to feed the Alpha Go database with millions of past historic documented Go games."

        I doubt it. In chess, databases of millions of games have long since been compiled. Without huge effort, you can also choose to compile a database of the extant million (or three) games played by the tested best players. If the quoted statement is true, it could just as well be argued that the 100 scientists (and it could more cheaply have been 100 lay people or 100 teenagers with direction) were first filling a surprising lacuna in the culture of the game of Go. I've read Go books, and the approach is a lot like chess books: here is a technique, and here is a game that illustrates the technique. Rinse. Repeat.

        In chess, it is not difficult with a high degree of reliability to evaluate each move of the 6 million games. The, ah, Art has sufficiently advanced that the evaluations of expert human commentators have been checked by computer chess engines. I'm guessing, but I suspect that was not so easy in the game of Go, as the new program did not have so much in the way of shoulders to stand upon.

        The failures of programmers to replicate the ways they thought the human brain worked, while winning chess games, led pretty much to redefinition of what AI was. The chess programs that play at human World Championship level (or higher) do not attempt to mimic how a theorist thinks the human brain works. The programs that did, were left in the dust decades ago. Although it might be fun to bring back one of those programs on modern hardware. Chess has ratings. If your rating is 200 points the higher, in a match of 4 games, you will win about 3. A rule of thumb is that doubling the processing speed of a competitive chess program will improve it by about 20 rating points. Between the World Champion and the level of those dusted programs on their contemporary hardware is in excess of 1,000 rating points. But I'd rather liken it to the exercise of looking back at Phrenology and rescuing the parts of it that sort-of were valid.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    dubious stats

    Dodgy stats is common in scientific papers.

    Back in the day, and when very little was online as the web was not much of a thing then so doing much background research on companies / people at short notice was not the doddle it is these days , before I left biology research due to suffering severe health threatening allergy issues with some of the materials used, I went for an interview (UK) for a company that makes vitamins / supplements.

    Part of the interview was to talk about a scientific paper (that had been sent to applicants a few days before the interview so you had a bit of time to read it and prepare a presentation on it).

    My presentation demolished the paper for it's massively dubious assumptions / misuse of statistics, as none of the things it claimed were statistically significant in any way.

    I was expecting congratulations for really digging into the data, showing lots of maths wizardry (stats skills not always present in lots of biological / chemistry researchers) and not unthinkingly accepting the papers conclusions.

    Instead - an ashen faced interview panel... turned out the paper author was their new "star researcher" hire they had recently poached from elsewhere (hence research institute details on paper bore no relation to company I was interviewing at).

    It will come as no surprise to any realists, that

    a) I was not offered a position

    b) The "star researcher" was not censured, dismissed, punished in any way & worked at that company for a while.

    (Obv, in these webby days could easily have found the link between paper author & potential employer so a "surprise" scenarios like that unlikely)

    AC for obv reasons

  18. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Always scroll immediately to the parting shot in these articles.

    Especially if the author is a media analyst or something generally writing about copyright issues.


    We probably need a whole new intelligentsia: one less eager to reduce humans to programmable robots, or uncomplaining deterministic rats.

    Woah, is this a complaint from the 30s or what? I don't think that this is anwhere near of what is being said or implied.

    Baby, bathwater. OUT!

  19. ma1010
    Black Helicopters

    It's about control

    And that leads politicians to therapy - trying to make us feel better about something, like the NHS or immigration - rather than addressing the root causes. It replaces politics with behavioural manipulation.

    Well, I'm not sure anything is getting "replaced" here. A great deal of politics is all about behavioral manipulation. After all, everything a politician says while running for office is intended to manipulate the voters to vote for him/her. And once they're in power, aside from advancing whatever agenda they have in mind, there's just about always the desire to remain in power, often through any means necessary.

    The fMRI seemed to offer these people a tool to help them do what they truly want to do anyway, control others, so of course many of them embraced the concept.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Like I said before...

    ... before the down-voting commentards got stuck in, is that science based on unproven, unverified software is not science.

  21. gallantlab

    All fMRI studies are not created equal

    Since my lab was called out specifically in this rather cavalier opinion piece, I feel compelled to respond. Mr. Orlowski is correct that there are profound problems with some specific procedures used in fMRI data analysis. But the specific decoding studies that he cites (the movie reconstruction study from my lab and the dream decoding Miyawaki lab in Japan) do not use those statistical procedures. In fact, the encoding/decoding approach used in my lab is based on a completely different experimental and statistical framework that includes very strict cross-validation and internal replication. In fact the entire data processing pipeline that we use is designed to avoid precisely the problems that Mr. Orlowski is concerned about. (The Miyawaki study on dreams was built on the same framework and so shares some of those advantages.) Because we do not use the statistical models or software that Mr. Orlowski discusses, we do not suffer from the problems that Mr. Orlowski describes. Even a rudimentary glance through any of our publications, our online web site ( or our twitter stream (@gallantlab) would have made this clear.

    The specific problem that Mr. Orlowski cites stems from statistical models whose assumptions are often not met by fMRI data sets. This is indeed a serious concern for all of the fMRI studies that used those statistical models. And it illustrates the dangers of using canned data analysis software without running appropriate unit tests to ensure its validity and accuracy. There is no “free lunch” in science. Any corners that are cut to save time, money or labor are likely to have negative consequences for the quality of the research.

    Many areas of biomedical science – psychology, experimental biology and medicine – use a point-null hypothesis testing approach developed in the first half of the last century. That experimental and statistical approach was a major advance at the time, but the limitations of the classical approach have become clear over the past decade. In short, the classical approach sets the bar too low for publication, and so pollutes the scientific literature with many small effects that cannot be replicated. Many of us in the biomedical science community are well aware of this problem and we are pushing the field to address it. (For excellent work on this issue in the biomedical community in general, I suggest that the interested reader look up Professor John Ioannidis at Stanford.)

    Since several of the comments bring up the 19th century field of Phrenology, I should add some information about the relationship between Phrenology and modern neuroscience. Phrenology was originally inspired by valid scientific and medical observations that at least some behavioral and cognitive functions are localized to specific regions of the brain. However, Phrenology was a variety of cargo cult science that did not follow the accepted procedures of science and which had absolutely no basis in fact. The problem with Phrenology wasn’t that the idea of localization was completely wrong, the problem is that the Phrenologists were not doing valid science. (That said, it would be wrong to accept the most extreme versions of functional localization except in a few very specific cases. It is generally best to think of all cognitive functions as being mediated by broad networks of brain structures.)

    I often read the Register and I hope that this specific piece does not reflect the usual editorial standards at this source.

    - Jack Gallant, UC Berkeley

    lab web site:

    specific information on movie reconstruction study:

    1. Notas Badoff

      Re: All fMRI studies are not created equal

      I'll second the reference to John Ioannidis. Please do read some of the articles about him.

      In addition to the publicized (in the popular press) larger review of "the most referenced medical articles" that found serious problems with many of them, I believe it was he that long ago, as an exercise in statistics and medical referencing, had a class look back to the most referenced foundational assertions of modern medical science (thus 1800's thru early 1900's). I don't remember the numbers, but a few fundamental assertions had never been verified/duplicated, others were accidentally contradicted, and others more than subtly modified in experimental results.

      In medical practice, you (the patient) hope that treatments are evidence-based and results-checked. In medical research, you (the researcher) hope the studies are and continue to be funded. Too careful adherence to the factually medically beneficial is often not 'rewarding' to the researcher.

  22. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    That is when...

    The facebook/selfie generation is conducting "scientific" studies: not understanding anything but believing to be highly relevant.


  23. Stevie


    So the Monsters From The Id are just a buffer overflow bug?

    I'll nip down and tell them to switch off the force field and stow the death ray then.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    This is something that has indirectly had a considerable effect on my own working life. My main job was as a literacy specialist. (IT the sideline).

    Some years ago the Behaviourist view of learning took a new toehold in education.

    In literacy it meant a return to phonics. A nice behaviourist model that appeals to the man-in-the-pub and so politicians. Easy to understand and cheap to implement.

    Then came the brain scans.

    And lo and behold they show that if you teach phonics certain parts of the brain "light up". These are the parts of the brain related to sounds, so this is hardly surprising.

    But that sort of stuff, and some other bits of well documented bad science, have been held up to prove that the Behaviourist approach to teaching kids to read has to be the right one.

  25. Tim99 Silver badge


    If a research field has "science" in its name, it may not be...

  26. deconstructionist

    sour grapes

    bad science is just that bad science and we have it by the bucket loads with fMRI and it would seem that leaves certain champions of a technology based on hope and dare I say it sophistry a tad red faced, so it is no surprise it results is some hot air when exposed to the shiny bright concept of reality.

  27. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    "What shields a behaviourist from behaviourism? Is it wearing a white coat?"

    I strongly suspect you'd also need a pipe, but right now the data I have is somewhat inconclusive, so further study is needed.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Science as a methodology only works on things you can control

    however lots of things are presented to the public as being "proven" by science when clearly they are founded upon philosophy alone i.e. not "proven" at all.

    Lots of disciplines are given the credence of science when they are not actually scientific at all very much in the way that toilet cleaners get to be called sanitation engineers.

    Statistics alone actual prove nothing, it is just a way to present your argument when you are unable/unwilling to obtain real proof to support your premise, any concept that relies upon statistics alone for proof should be taken with a pinch of salt.

    Add in the press/political desire for headlines resulting in funding for pseudo science and you find yourself in the situation where institutional lying is the norm and vast sums are diverted away from real science and engineering towards mysticism to benefit the unscrupulous.

    1. Lotaresco

      Re: Science as a methodology only works on things you can control

      Is there anything else, other than science and mathematics, that you don't understand?

      Here are a couple of beelions of possible clues, we can't control the sun but science has managed to tell us an immense amount about the sun. We can't control stars but science has revealed the presence and characteristics of planets orbiting stars up to 28,000 light years away.

      Statistics are regularly used to prove outcomes. If statistics don't work for proving outcomes then quantum physics is in trouble. In fact all science is in trouble (p<= 0.000001).

      1. Mark Eaton-Park

        Re: Science as a methodology only works on things you can control

        actually I do understand science, lots of things are presented as science when they are actually not. Generally, the higher your level of scientific education the greater your understanding that things are not as simple as they are presented as being.

        Some things that we can control scientifically may appear to scale up or down but since we cannot actually control them then predictions upon these systems cannot be scientifically proven.

        Some systems have been conforming to statistical models for so long that we assume them to be proven but they are only best guesses awaiting a better understanding than science can currently provide.

        If we can engineer systems based upon our fractional understanding then we assume that we have moved forwards but without real understanding we are actually just rolling the dice. When we become so confident in our statistics that we ignore actual results that do not conform then we are loosing the opportunity to really understand what is going on. So I say we should stop calling paradigms based upon statistics science when they are actually philosophy.

        Lastly, your examples of the sun and distant stars are indeed best guesses, if you actually knew what you were talking about you would know that already, you would have been better using diffusion or gas expansion where our predictions are somewhat better than the weather. There is nothing wrong when your predictions are on the lines of "it is raining somewhere on the planet" but there is when you say it is always raining in one location

  29. gregwalker

    Two things going on here:

    1. The unconscionable hubris of the new Scientism, tied to an ever-expanding fetish for quick success. In fact, the best scientists fail long and often, and have ultimate faith in things higher than their own abilities. Read a biography of Pasteur if you doubt this last point.

    2. Unquestioning reliance on complex (commercialized) information processing which is inadequately understood by its users. These guys are not endlessly sitting down with graph paper and calculators, and along the way finessing a deep conceptual understanding of just how their data are being processed. No, they just fawn over the pretty-colored outputs that show them what they wanted to see in the first place, then rough up a quick press release and bask in the glory.

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