Brain Imaging: A Cautionary Tale

An article in the New York Times reporting a decades long series of fraudulent psychology research by a prominent Dutch researcher serves as a cautionary tale about trendy “theories”, including research using brain imaging techniques to reach questionable conclusions about human nature (as, for example, detailed elsewhere on this blog in my post on Sam Harris’s Moral Swampland).  According to the Times report, Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University has admitted to falsifying data and making up entire experiments.  Apparently, such non-scientific behavior is not uncommon; the report further states that “In recent years, psychologists have reported a raft of findings on race biases, brain imaging, and even extrasensory perception that have not stood up to scrutiny” and “In recent years, some [psychologists] have mocked studies showing correlations between activity on brain images and personality measures as ‘voodoo’ science.”  The motivation for these frauds appears to be the desire to give psychology an aura of hard science, but the fact that fraud appears to be necessary to get the results the individual “researcher” desires suggests that readers should view claims about human nature couched in scientific terms ( for example, that there is a “god spot” or “god gene”) with the skepticism they initially arouse in his or her mind.

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