Hype, bollocks and woo

A recent video from Sixty Symbols featured an exasperated Phil Moriarty bemoaning the misuse of the language of physics to make ridiculous New Age woo sound respectable. Unfortunately, physics isn’t the only field in which this happens. Take, for example, the newspaper-generated hype over a recent neuroimaging study on sex differences featured in PNAS. The spurious claims being made on the basis of that study, peddled principally by sensationalist newspaper headlines, have generated untold facepalms from the neuroscience community (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Likewise, the recent story of a neuroscientist who apparently diagnosed himself a psychopath on the basis of a brain scan provoked similar sentiments, captured best in the gif below:

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It’s easy (and tempting) to dismiss hype and woo as just that – hype and woo. But to do so would be to ignore the fact that there are people who read this stuff and take it seriously. It’s not without consequence. The damage this produces isn’t always overt; it’s subtle and cumulative. Over time, it distorts the public perception of science (whatever the field). It leads people without an adequate background knowledge to believe that the hype, the bollocks and woo is what psychology, or neuroscience, or physics, etc, really is, and it thus makes them susceptible to accepting all sorts of ridiculous nonsense that bears superficial resemblance to science or some tenuous connection to real scientific work.

I’ve argued previously that scientists need to be politically engaged because science doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s embedded in the fabric of the social world. The same argument applies to cultural engagement also and highlights the importance of good communication. We need people like Neuroskeptic, NeuroBollocks, Neurocritic and others, in all fields, who dispel common misconceptions, tear apart beguiling and vacuous claims, and encourage people to think more critically and deeply about what research findings actually reveal about the world.

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