Neuroscience’s Inference Problem And The Perils Of Scientific Reduction

In Science’s Inference Problem: When Data Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Does, while reviewing Jerome Kagan‘s Five Constraints on Predicting Behavior, James Ryerson writes:

Perhaps the most difficult challenge Kagan describes is the mismatching of the respective concepts and terminologies of brain science and psychology. Because neuroscientists lack a “rich biological vocabulary” for the variety of brain states, they can be tempted to borrow correlates from psychology before they have shown there is in fact a correlation. On the psychology side, many concepts can be faddish or otherwise short-lived, which should make you skeptical that today’s psychological terms will “map neatly” onto information about the brain. If fMRI machines had been available a century ago, Kagan points out, we would have been searching for the neurological basis of Pavlov’s “freedom reflex” or Freud’s “oral stage” of development, no doubt in vain. Why should we be any more confident that today’s psychological concepts will prove any better at cutting nature at the joints?

In a review of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), I made note¹ of related epistemological concerns:

When experiments are carried out, neuroscientists continue to run into problems. The level of experimental control available to practitioners in other sciences is simply not available to them, and the theorising that results often seems to be on shaky ground….The localisation techniques that are amongst the most common in neuroscience rely on experimental methods such as positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephelography (MEG). [In PET] a radioactive tracer consisting of labelled water or glucose analogue molecules is injected into a subject, who is then asked to perform a cognitive task under controlled conditions. The tracer decays and emits positrons and gamma rays that increase the blood flow or glucose metabolism in an area of the brain. It is now assumed that this area is responsible for the cognitive function performed by the subject. The problem with this assumption, of course, is that the increased blood flow might occur in one area, and the relevant neural activity might occur in another, or in no particular area at all….this form of investigation, rather than pointing to the modularity and functional decomposability of the brain, merely assumes it.

The fundamental problem–implicit and explicit in Kagan’s book and my little note above–is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris, and the various challenges Kagan outlines in his book bear out the foolishness of this enterprise. It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

Note: In Metascience, 11(1): March 2002.

Reviewing Doug Henwood’s ‘My Turn’ In Jacobin Magazine

My review of Doug Henwood‘s book My Turn: Hillary Clinton Takes Aim At The Presidency has just been published by Jacobin Magazine. Here is a pull-quote:

[Henwood’s] insistence on grounding his many rhetorical and analytical fusillades in the material conditions of US life ensures that his detailed, unflinching look at the Clintons’ long public history cannot be written off as a sexist attack. Instead, Henwood’s brief is directed squarely at Hillary Clinton’s political opportunism, her reflexive secrecy, her frequent patronage of friends and cronies, her belligerent approach to foreign policy, her scant legislative record in the Senate, and her unimpressive tenure as secretary of state.

To the extent that Clinton’s identity serves as a basis for Henwood’s critique, it is not her gender, but her identification with, and championing of the interests of, the powerful and wealthy American elite that makes her an unworthy candidate.

Comments welcome; if you like the review essay, please do share it.

The Elusive Art of the Book Review

A dozen or so years ago, my first ‘official’ book reviews were published. Both of them had been commissioned–that sounds so grand!–by the APA Newsletter on Teaching PhilosophyPhilosophical Naturalism by David Papineau and What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers. (The always-ahead-of-the-curve APA website’s archive is incomplete and I cannot find copies of these reviews any more. Perhaps it’s just as well.) Back then, I was completing my dissertation and welcomed the opportunity to broaden my readings, develop some analytical writing skills and of course, add a few lines to my CV. My editor was happy with the reviews I sent in and suggested only exceedingly minor edits.

A year later, I wrote another review, this time of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds)), for the journal Metascience. My draft review was rejected by the editor: it supposedly read like a tedious listing and description of the table of contents. The editor had seized on a confusion that I still entertained about how to write a good book review: the step-by-step analysis of arguments or the broad, synoptic take. In the case of my current assignment, this confusion had been made worse by my reviewing a collection of essays rather than a unitary monograph. Suitably chastened, I revised the review to take on–hopefully–a more elevated and magisterial view. It was accepted, and I moved on.

In the intervening years, I’ve only written a few more reviews. Truth be told, I’ve not been approached too often, and I’ve not minded, as I’ve often felt myself lacking in time given my academic commitments and teaching loads at Brooklyn College. Moreover, I find myself not wanting to review philosophy books as much as novels or collections of essays; if I want to diversify my readings now, it’s in a direction away from philosophy, of which I get plenty during my teaching and academic writing. But ‘the literary market’ seems considerably harder to crack, and so I patiently wait for my first commission in this arena, and satisfy myself by writing the odd critical note here on this blog.

Still, my early experiences in writing book reviews and my subsequent reading of review essays and author-reviewer disputes in those hoary fora, the New York and London Reviews of Books, still prompts the question of what the ‘correct’ approach to writing a book review might be: the micro or the macro? (As described above. I’m leaving aside the question of whether the hilariously negative and scathing review–a la Strohminger of McGinn–serves any value whatsoever, other than confirming the popular impression of academics as highly educated squabbling children.)

The best reviews, of course, eschew the excesses of either approach: they disdain the grim plod through the minutiae of the text as well as the lofty ramble or learned filler that only glancingly or perfunctorily considers the book under review.  The former suffers on stylistic grounds and sometimes misses the forest for the trees; the latter on content, especially as it confirms its author as a blowhard.

Unsurprisingly, very few get the balance just right.

A Friendly Amendent to Nina Strohminger’s McGinn Review

Nina Strohminger–a post-doctoral fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics–recently wrote a scathing review of Colin McGinn‘s book The Meaning of Disgust. Thanks to Strohminger’s flamboyant cuffing of McGinn around the ears, her review earned her some well-deserved ‘net fame. I have not read the book so I cannot comment on it but the review does make for quite an entertaining read. I say that as someone who has mixed feelings about such ‘takedowns’ in the academic context; I have no such compunctions when it comes to bad movies (see below). Still, McGinn has dished out plenty in the past, so he should be used to this sort of jousting. (An interesting subtext: Strohminger is a newly minted Ph.D from the University of Michigan’s Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience program; McGinn is a senior professor in a related field. Let’s hope McGinn has the grace to retaliate only in print.)

Strohminger’s review begins:

In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category.

From there it moves on to:

McGinn’s view of disgust is insistently mysterian: not merely ignorant or unenlightening but obfuscatory. Baroque, eye-catching explanations are given precedence over parsimony, evidence, or even common sense….Another property of the book, of which potential readers should be aware, is its unintentional hilarity. The humor derives less from the unblushing content than from the unblushing purpleness of his prose.

And so on. You get the picture. There is however, a missed opportunity in the review, and it occurs when Strominger catches McGinn being sloppy and sexist:

McGinn suggests that inorganic items—a list which includes cars, houses, and, apparently, fine silks—lack the ambivalence of human companions, so we can love them wholeheartedly, unencumbered by the physical disgust that attends our love for children and romantic partners. Diamonds, being forever, do not remind us of death. He muses: “Is this why women tend to love jewelry so—because of a relatively high level of bodily self-disgust? Just asking.” Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking!

Strohminger’s retort to the line she quotes is good, but I think it could have been better. By placing an exclamation mark at the end of the ‘Just asking’ Strohminger defuses her counter-volley’s rhetorical impact significantly. With that punctuation, Strohminger’s retort looks a little hurried and nervous, one quickly made, and then withdrawn. McGinn’s ‘Just asking’ ends with a period; its offensiveness is a function of the baldness of its statement. It is the period that makes clear his ‘just’ asking is insincere.

Consider now:

Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking.

This, I think, is the right mirror to McGinn’s line. I do not know if reviews ever appear in revised editions; but if they ever do, then Strohminger should take the opportunity to ditch the exclamation mark, replace it with a period, and email McGinn and myself a copy. (Come to think of it, I don’t think Strohminger’s review has been published yet; time yet to revise!)

Note: Thanks to reading around the McGinn review, I stumbled on Anthony Lane’s hilarious review of George Lucas’ disastrous Star Wars episode 3. The review is genuinely funny and Lucas deserves every single word in there.