About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Rationally Speaking podcast: neurobabble

The media is increasingly bombarding us with reports of advances in neuroscience which claim all sorts of amazing feats, like allowing us to read our thoughts and intentions. It sounds like neurobabble. Most of these reports though are either based on bad science, reach false conclusion, or are based on conceptual misunderstanding of how our psychology works. To be fair, much of this is manufactured by the popular media but, unfortunately, some of it comes from the neuroscience community itself. So, what information can we really get from fMRIs? As with the misunderstanding of what genes are (like whether there is a God or a conservative gene), are there really parts of the brain dedicated to categories of thoughts like some of these reports claim? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the ethical implications of this neurobabble, should we arrest people who we can tell, based on this research, will be committing a crime?


  1. I highly recommend Julia's pick: Stanovich's 'Rationality and the Reflective Mind'. For a quick intro to that kind of material, see The Cognitive Science of Rationality:

  2. I find this skepticism over the activities of neuroscientists ironic after your prior post from an ESP proponent. Was your skepticism on vacation for that one?

  3. Tom,

    no irony there. I am a hell of a lot more skeptical of parapsychology than of fMRI, as I'll make clear in a forthcoming response to Maaneli after the winter break. However, I think it's healthy from time to time to publish a different point of view, if well articulated. Hell, I'd even publish a post by Sam Harris on neurobiology and morality, if he were interested...

  4. Nice podcast. I would have liked to hear a bit on what fMRI CAN tell us, though. The recent publication from the Gallant lab comes to mind. After all, fMRI is a method as useful as most - it's only when the interpretations start that things can go downhill.

  5. Interesting episode ! In link with Cordelia Fine's work, read an interesting article (free acess) in the last issue of Neuron from Lise Eliot who does her share of debunking of neurobable on cognitive/brain differences between the sexes and comments on the need for neuroscientists to communicate better on these issues.
    To quote from her conclusion : "Done correctly, research on sex difference provides a fascinating window into the nature-nurture interaction that fuels all of brain and behavioral development. Done incorrectly—that is, without consideration of both social and genetic/hormonal influences and without attention to the careless extrapolations in public discourse—this science can reinforce some of the worst biological essentialism."

  6. (Unfortunately,) I haven't read their work myself, but I was hoping this podcast might have touched on Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will or the work of Antonio Damasio. Would you consider their popular works (at least partly) neurobabble? (I can't recall if either of them have been discussed in previous podcasts.)

  7. Diogenes,

    The implication of the podcast certainly isn't that all, or even most, public writing about neurobiology is flawed. Damasio is one of the best writers in this context, for instance.


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