How to Spot Pseudoneuroscience and Biobunk by Dr. Carol Tavris

Association for Psychological Science Presents:

How to spot pseudoneuroscience and biobunk

by Dr.  Carol Tavris, PhD

When it comes to pseudoscience, social psychologist and writer Carol A. Tavris is a self-appointed curmudgeon.

“I have spent many years lobbing hand grenades at psychobabble — that wonderful assortment of pop psych ideas that permeate our culture in spite of having no means of empirical support,” said Tavris at the 24th APS Annual Convention.“Today, however, we face an even greater challenge because in this era of the medical-pharmaceutical-industrial complex, where psychobabble goes, can biobunk be far behind?”

In her APS-David Myers Distinguished Lecture on the Science and Craft of Teaching Psychology, Tavris showed how “biobunk” has been perpetuated in neuroscience.

Carol Tavris has spent

Carol A. Tavris is on a mission to root out substandard science.

“Nonexperts really love bad explanations from neuroscience,” she said. Consider the way that the fast-evolving technology in brain-imaging techniques have practically hypnotized laypeople — especially journalists — with stunning images. Unfortunately, appreciation for the images is not usually accompanied by any critical thinking about what the colors in those pictures actually mean. Still, Tavris said, “Many people regard evidence from brain images as being more ‘real’ than other types of psychological information.”

According to Tavris, the public’s preference for “neat” biological explanations over “messy” psychological rationale has led scientists to search for genes that explain behaviors, the development of psychopharmaceuticals, and the development of numerous diagnostic screens that physicians can use to screen for mental disorders.

Not every aspect of this “biomedical revolution,” as Tavris calls it, is unwelcome. She admitted that she gets very excited about many of these discoveries. What she takes issue with is the perception that biomedical explanations are infallible. Similar to the psychobabble that plagues psychological science, “brainless neuroscience” should be giving the field an image problem, but because most people don’t know how to spot biobunk, they are more willing to accept bad neuroscience findings over good psychological ones.

1. Technomyopia

Also called “the technology knows more than I do” phenomenon. …She cited an fMRI study on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which the authors concluded that PTSD is a brain disease and concrete proof of human suffering. Tavris said, “If we can’t recognize human suffering without an fMRI, we are technomyopic indeed.”

2. Murky Methods

Questionable methods are a sure sign of pseudoneuroscience.dead.”

3. Rampant Reductionism

Reductionism is popular in pseudoneuroscience because people tend to appreciate simple answers to questions.

4. Neuromarketing

Watch out for hype and overselling. Often “neuromarketers” will hawk impressive sounding devices or treatments to desperate [people] … fMRI results to induce confessions or to bamboozle a jury.

“We can strive to remind the public that biology has much to contribute to the human story,” she said. “But it is only a piece of the narrative.”

Related links:


Carol Tavris, PhD – “A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience” TAM

Wall Street Journal: Multiple Personality Deception

Anger: The misunderstood emotion

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