Beware Neuroscience Stories

Via Hamish Barney and Mark Liberman, a forthcoming Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience paper showing people are more willing to accept bad psychology explanations if they include irrelevant brain facts:

Irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. … Subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

Mark says:

Skolnick et al. observe that neuroscience has a number of properties that make it especially effective as a rhetorical distractor, beyond the previously documented (and more general) "seductive details effect" — it points to reductionist and materialist explanations, it provides an almost unlimited source of jargon, it sits at the intersection of several high-status occupations, and (though not in this experiment) it offers pretty pictures.

There is reason to hope that neurosceince will eventually make important contributions to the cognitive and social sciences, but so far most things I see on the subject seem to offer below average contributions, especially relative to the publicity they receive. 

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