Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Neurobunk and how to properly blame a journalist

"When in doubt, blame the journalist" is one of my favorite explanations for bad science.  So often the science behind the headline is actually good (or at least appropriately admitting of it's shortcomings) and then a journalist comes along and mucks it all up.  I've often wondered how scientists feel about seeing their work so grossly misrepresented, and yesterday I stumbled upon this TED talk where a neuroscientist explains how it felt to see that done to her own work:

It's a good video, but if you don't have time for it, here's the low down:  Molly Crockett and her lab did a study on whether or not taking away tryptophan from the brain would result in worse decision making.  They did this by giving people a gross drink.  The headlines ended up blaring "eat cheese for better decision making".  Apparently the fact that cheese contains tryptophan was enough for the writers to conclude that eating cheese would cause decision making getting better....something the study never claimed to say.

The rest of her talk is quite good.  Some interesting points:

  • People are more likely to believe scientific articles that have pictures of the brain in them
  • Most regions of the brain have multiple functions, so any study claiming that the area associated with a specific emotion lit up at stimulus x likely just picked the function of that part of the brain they liked best 
  • Oxytocin not only promotes good feelings (like is commonly reported) but also jealousy and bad feelings
I don't know much about neuroscience, so I enjoyed seeing new ways of cutting through the hype.  

It also led me to this article from a few months ago, which is also good.


  1. one you may wish to investigate - at mangan's blog, he cited a study saying sugar consumption correlated with depression at an outlandish pearson r of .948 p =.004 (is that about an N of 6?) may be 6 countries - with X variable = sugar consumption per capita & Y variable = percentage diagnosed with depression (so new guinea = no sugar no depression (b/c no MD's!) & US = high sugar high depression) - pick your 6 countries to create the r that's right for you! abstract:

    1. That looks right up my alley...I'll have to check it out tomorrow at work where I have my free pubmed access!

  2. People are more likely to believe science articles if they haven't recently eaten a lot of cheese!