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



(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


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

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