24 November 2012

"The New York Times" discovers "the Neuroscientific Turn"

The New York Times discusses the limits and insanity of much neuroscience in popular culture. They have done a real public service by publishing this essay. Among the nuggets:
A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.
Some elaboration, I think, should be made for the situation in 'the university'. The rise of the 'neuro' in the humanities and social sciences could underpin a dramatic shift in the ways that humans conceptualize awe, emotions, randomness, selfhood, and even history. Proponents of the 'neuroscientific turn' in the humanities and social sciences are largely optimistic about the promise of neuroscience and neurology to provide significant and lasting answers to problems that have long plagued philosophy and the social science.

Opponents of these trends see little merit or rigor in the claims made for neuroscience and neurology as it applies to questions of humanistic or social science interest. Many feel - I certainly do - that it is easy to say that neuroscience or neurology may show something salient about these questions eventually, but we suspect that the predictive value of neuroscience or neurology will collide with the comparatively harder problem of human variability.

There is, however, a further point that can be made: were humanists and social scientists to take the 'neuroscientific turn' seriously, it is not clear that the logic of the science would inevitably demonstrate the value of philosophy, humanities, art, or literature. On the contrary, adopting 'the neuro' might eliminate the need for the humanities and social sciences completely. Consider Alex Rosenberg's reaction to efforts to make historical scholarship more scientifically rigorous in his Atheist's Guide to Reality:
Gene sequence differences, slight differences between dialects and languages, and other quantifiable variables are already allowing biological anthropologists to uncover large swaths of human prehistory and even to correct written histories of settlements, migrations, technological advances, and military conquests. But even what these scientific means uncover can’t really amount to more than entertainment. The narratives about what actually happened in the past have no more value for understanding the present or the future than the incomplete and even entirely mythic narratives that they might replace. History, even corrected by science, is still bunk.   
With similar logic, Rosenberg also eviscerates economics, sociology, and cultural studies. For a host of reasons, I consider his argument contradictory and solipsistic, but those reasons have nothing to do with the philosophical rigor of Rosenberg's statement. If he is right and if 'the neuro' is the logic of the new Epoch, then many of his claims follow. It seems clear that the logic of 'the neuro' must lead inevitably to his 'nice nihilism' - and in that Brave New World such fields of study as history, the humanities, and social sciences can serve no end whatsoever, save perhaps as rather shallow entertainments. And, for that reason, thoughtful people would devote themselves to neuroscience instead.  

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