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Neuroscientists: We Don’t Really Know What We Are Talking about, Either

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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(Credit: Adapted from image by John A Beal, Wikimedia Commons)

NEW YORK—At a surprise April 1 press conference, a panel of neuroscientists confessed that they and most of their colleagues make up half of what they write in research journals and tell reporters. “We’re always qualifying our conclusions by reminding people that the brain is extremely complex and difficult to understand—and it is,” says Philip Tenyer of Harvard University, “but we’ve also been a little lazy. It is just easier to bluff our way through some of it. That’s one perk of being a respected neuroscientist—you can pretty much say whatever you want about the brain because so few people, including other neuroscientists, understand what you’re talking about in the first place. As long as you throw in enough jargon, it sounds science-y and legit and stuff.”

“It’s not just what we write in our studies,” explains Stephanie Sigma of Stanford University. “It’s a lot of the pretty pictures, too. You know those images with captions claiming that certain brain regions ‘light up’ like the fourth of July? I mean, come on. Most of the participants in these studies are college freshmen who only enrolled in Intro Psychology to satisfy a mandatory academic requirement. There is only one thing they know how to ‘light up’—and it’s not their brains. Frankly, we were just hoping that the colorful images would keep people’s attention. People like pretty pictures—that is something we’ve shown in our studies. Although I can’t quite remember if that was one of the findings we made up or not…”

People who read a lot of neuroscience news have probably noticed several consistent contradictions, says Laura Sulcus of Dartmouth College. “Some studies say that different brain regions work in concert to perform a single complex task, whereas other studies argue that a particular cognitive function—such as recognizing faces—is basically the sole domain of one region. The thing is, just because one part of the brain shows more activity than another, it doesn’t mean that it is the only piece involved. But it is just so easy to pick a neglected area, dress it up with some colorful fMRI studies and present it to the world as a distinct, functional region of the brain. How can we resist? For neuroscientists, the brain is like the world during the Age of Exploration. We have the major continents named but there is plenty of room for new countries. Everyone wants to plant their flag.”

Frederick Pompass of Washington University in St. Louis wondered whether sticking to the facts would make much difference. “We recently realized that even when are sincere, the general public often misunderstands our explanations. Like, apparently, most people think that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows neurons firing in real time. Obviously fMRI measures the level of oxygenated blood in brain tissue, which is correlated with the amount of glucose delivered to different neurons, which is in turn correlated with the activity of those neurons. We honestly thought people knew that. It’s pretty basic.”

Nonsense neuroscience extends beyond the research paper and news conference into everyday life, says David Barbiturate of Duke University. “When people find out that I study the brain I instantly become their pro bono psychiatrist and their personal guru for both everyday predicaments and existential crises. Sometimes I say whatever sounds good to get them to shut up. The other night I was at one of Betty’s dinner parties, right, and her friend Jason finds out that I’m in neuroscience and suddenly it’s like, ‘What is déjà vu? Do we really have free will? What about the nature of consciousness?’ And I’m like, ‘Jason, none of that matters. We’ve established that there is no way to tell the difference between the world as it really exists and the world as we imagine it. Didn’t you see Inception? That was based on neuroscience.’ And Jason’s eyes go wide and he stutters, ‘Oh…I, I thought that was made up.’”

Before the conference came to a close, one reporter asked whether neuroscientists would retract studies in which they made up data and conclusions. The panel said that they were assessing the feasibility of retraction with further studies, but that these studies had not yet yielded conclusive results. The neuroscientists in attendance plan to reconvene in one year, on April 1, 2013.

Disclaimer: This is a parody. None of the quotes are real, nor are the scientists. Happy April Fools’ Day from Scientific American!

A selection of previous April Fools’ Day parodies in Scientific American:

Computer restoraton of juvenile art, by Ricardo Chiav’inglese
April, 2011

Okay, We Give Up
April, 2005

50, 100 & 150 Million Years Ago
April, 2002


About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rafapetunia 8:36 am 04/1/2012

    WOW, I´ve really fallen for this article. I think is all truth and pure truth, but let us think is a joke. ahahhaa

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  2. 2. wallofshadows 9:38 am 04/1/2012

    Lol. A “joke” article that is mostly true. Is there a name for that?

    I don’t think neuroscientists just make things up, but a lot of their studies really are vague and contradictory. We still know hardly anything about how the brain works.

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  3. 3. GG 11:27 am 04/1/2012

    Parody aside, neuroscientists by the nature of their business are uniquely positioned to be professional conmen.

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  4. 4. Mayamuchlis 11:44 am 04/1/2012

    So tricky

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 12:10 pm 04/1/2012

    This parody relies on critical elements of truth to establish credibility:

    “Most of the participants in these studies are college freshmen…”

    Unfortunately, the convenient selection of a non-representative sample population, often limited to small numbers due to the cost of MRI experiments, from which researchers draw very general conclusions representing the entirety of humanity is a very real limitation of many neurological research studies.

    BTW, have you ever read of an MRI research report that screened their candidate subjects, rejecting those found to be under the influence of recreational or study enhancement drugs?

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  6. 6. michaelhalpern 1:31 pm 04/1/2012

    So which parts are correct, those done by the left brain or those by the right?

    Here’s my contribution to the frivolity:

    In a misguided attempt to raise awareness about the importance of the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the city of Cleveland plan to set the river on fire—again—this coming Tuesday. 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the law, which was largely inspired by the famous June 22, 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

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  7. 7. aberganza 1:48 pm 04/1/2012

    This is world-class mordacity! This press conference could -and perhaps should- have hapenned. This article could be a historic piece or satirical literature. The proffesional who wrote it is VERY familiar with the subject and, given the word choice, must have a deep understanding of the matter. Congratulations!

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  8. 8. Galvanic_Spiral 4:04 pm 04/1/2012

    “Frankly, we were just hoping that the colorful images would keep people’s attention. People like pretty pictures—that is something we’ve shown in our studies. Although I can’t quite remember if that was one of the findings we made up or not…””

    This was when I remembered it was April 1st. Good job, guys. That’s two good April Fools’ pranks in one day for me.

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  9. 9. SnowLeopard 6:40 pm 04/1/2012

    Since when did Scientific American turn into the Onion?

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  10. 10. Martin Wirth 8:47 pm 04/1/2012

    Articles in Scientific American would be far more believable if they simply posted the title and let non-experts, that know nothing about the subject and never bother to read the articles, write comments to enlighten us poor unwashed science geeks.

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  11. 11. Bora Zivkovic 10:52 pm 04/1/2012

    As The Onion taught us over the years, the best parody is the one that is so close to the truth that it takes reading 3/4 through the article before suspicions arise. Many tried but failed to do that today. Some did quite well (including at least three other blog posts on this site), but you really nailed it with this one – brilliant.

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  12. 12. Heteromeles 11:28 pm 04/1/2012

    It’s amazing. I linked to this on Facebook, and found out that a friend of a friend quit neuroscience to become a minister for pretty much these reasons.

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  13. 13. Young Turk 11:43 pm 04/1/2012

    I was fooled. With hindsight, the first sentence should have been a giveaway. The angle taken is close to that taken by Raymond Tallis in his book ‘Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity’.

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  14. 14. Alessandra 3:45 am 04/2/2012

    This article runs a close parallel to many articles that this publication has printed within the last six months that were NOT put out there as a joke. To quote an individual’s comment I thought was very appropriate about another article several months ago: “This article is a shining example of a disturbing trend in writing at Scientific American of late.”

    Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a Journalist’s credibility, and they are bound by their profession to share a dedication to ethical practices & standards. I regret to say that there has been a clear departure from this behavior at Scientific American, and it gives rise to one wondering why.
    (Not a reference to this April Fool’s article, but to their articles in general now.)

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  15. 15. Alessandra 3:59 am 04/2/2012

    A Reply To Bora Zivkovic’s Comment:

    I beg to differ – my suspicion arose at the title.

    If I understand your comment correctly, you are saying that it would require one to read 3/4 of this article before their suspicions would arise? Really? You are actually admitting that you did not observe anything untoward until you had read the large majority of this article? Forgive me, I mean you no harm, but I find that extremely difficult to believe. But, I suppose if one had no understanding of inclinations of medical professionals, much less Neuroscientists, and if they had no scientific knowledge at all, perhaps it could be possible. But to say this is “brilliant” – hardly.
    Please explain what you think is “brilliant” about it.

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  16. 16. Bora Zivkovic 8:30 am 04/2/2012

    LOL! I was just observing last night how April Fools makes SciAm commenters even grouchier than usual… ;-)

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  17. 17. jtdwyer 1:46 pm 04/2/2012

    Bora Zivkovic – you probably don’t understand why the Scientific American readership might object to being ‘humorously’ dismissed by the SA Blog Editor as being “grouchy”.

    I agree with Alessandra’s comments – I was tipped off by the illustration of a brain wearing a ‘Dunce’ hat before reading any of the “brilliant” article. I thought it simply wasn’t even funny, but then I must be an old grouch…

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  18. 18. jgrosay 4:49 pm 04/3/2012

    This sounds a bit to me like the old pseudo-identity between quantitative and qualitative: quantitative exists in nature, even when the things subject to quantification may be many different ones, but qualitative is a perception that exists only in the observers’ mind, just think in how people with color blindness perceive reality in a different way to others, or our unability to guess how reptilians see colors, as they have more retinal color receptors than us, mammals lost it when forced to night life, building less receptors is economical in terms of food and energy needed to build it.

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  19. 19. MSc. Jorge Poveda 6:33 pm 04/6/2012

    This articles states half the true. Really some disclaimers of some neuroscientist are not fully accurate,because they have to publish it without confirmations ,as many scientists uses to do. Independently of the “Happy April Fools’ Day ” not coincident with the same celebration in Costa Rica,
    mind is far to be understood in fully,not even many remarkable advances to measure some human situations.

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  20. 20. judynz 9:35 pm 04/6/2012

    Was this really so funny??
    My husband, a Canadian had a saying “Ribbing on the square.”

    We are learning more & more about how what we concentrate on we, create.
    Just as the mind can dance between many subjects in seconds….as we find answers these can provide new angles to pursue & build on.
    Herein is the reason man has not & will not destroy themselves completely.

    I have long believed that scientists have been responsible for their now having to face that they have to create a new basis for their work in order to find answers.

    Included in the mix…they have had to become competitive for funds & honours….they too have have been creative & down right dishonest which has also coloured what the mass mind has accepted as reality.

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