Friday, January 09, 2009

The "Voodoo Science" of Brain Imaging

This certainly came out of nowhere. Since I am not an expert is this area (I know quite a bit about NMR/MRI, but not how it is applied in brain imaging), I will only cite the webpage and, I'm sure, we'll hear more about this in the coming months when many authors get to send in their rebuttals. Still, the paper cited is really rips apart many social science studies on human interaction/responses and the corresponding correlations with brain activities as mapped via fMRI.

The new paper (to be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science but available here) is called “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience,” which gives you a pretty good idea of its argument. Basically, the authors noticed that a lot of papers in social neuroscience that use brain imaging were reporting correlations between brain activity and social/emotional behavior or thoughts that looked too good to be true or, even, mathematically possible (kind of like the years of steady investment returns that Bernie Madoff reported). So the scientists, led by Edward Vul of MIT and Harold Pashler of the University of California, San Diego, picked 54 such studies, many of them published in prominent journals such as Science and Nature, and wrote to the authors, basically asking how they managed to get such impressive correlations.

More than half admitted using a statistical strategy that, write Vul and his colleagues, “grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams.” Other statistical snafus, they say, “likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases,” and they call on social neuroscientists who use fMRI to reanalyze their raw data “to correct the scientific record.”

This could almost be as embarrassing for Social Science as the Alan Sokal hoax in "Social Text"!



Anonymous said...

Please see for a reply by some of the authors that are criticized.

Anonymous said...

For those interested, you can find our response to this reply here:
Cheers, Ed.

Anonymous said...

Here is our invited reply