Favourites List: Myths, Lies and Quackery

Neuroscience is enjoying a bit of a pop-culture moment: witness the rapid rise in neuro-economics, neuro-marketing, neuro-leadership, neuro-politics, neuro-law. Apparently we find explanations that invoke neuroscience alluring largely because we find them impenetrable.

If you’re a parent, educator, or anyone who’s been seduced by anything that comes with a picture of the brain on its cover, do read this!

As a bonus: no, you are not usually using only 10% of your brain. It doesn’t make sense evolutionarily for an energy-hungry organ (the brain consumes 20% of our daily calories, despite only accounting for 5-6% of our body mass) to grow to such a large size unless it is necessary.

1. The snake-oil salesmen of the brain

On how pseudo-scientific theories are being used to peddle everything, from marketing strategies to treatments for ADHD to educational programmes in schools.

The concern is that schools and parents may be seduced by the marketing, and divert scarce resources in order to implement these programs. This potentially means that other more traditional school programs – music, art or drama – may suffer. Paradoxically, musical training is the one form of “brain-training” where good evidence exists for an enhancement of a variety of functions including verbal intelligence, spatial skills, and mathematical abilities.

And for other neuromyths that continue to be taught in classrooms, check out this article in NRN (registration required).

2. Darwin made me do it

I have very little patience for evolutionary psychology: pretty much every paper that explains sexism or racism in terms of our caveman ancestors glosses over the fact that so much else has changed dramatically. The explanations themselves are simplistic, what Stephen Jay Gould has called “Just So” stories, and are frequently deployed to advance a xenophobic, sexist, racist agenda. (Witness Satoshi Kanazawa’s drivel, which led to him being banned by his employer, the LSE, from publishing in non-peer reviewed papers for a year.) Nevertheless, explanations for social behaviour that involve evolution continue to be popular. This fascinating read takes at how evolutionary psych became “sexy”.

Why do we swallow this clickbait? Stories about sexy science reliably draw readers because they address questions about our identities and intimate lives that matter deeply to almost everyone. We live in a time when people of every political stripe stress about how the changing economy is changing gender roles and relations. Even the most retrograde EP stories about gender and sex can offer reassurance. EP comforts women who feel disappointed that they still do not have it all, by insisting that no feminist movement could have changed things. Nor are our everyday failures our fault. Your boyfriend or husband isn’t being selfish when he forgets to pick up the dry cleaning; he evolved not to do laundry! At the same time, EP tells conservatives anxious about the disappearance of traditional gender roles that they don’t have much to worry about, because the fundamental facts of how we interact are deeply programmed.

3. Why scientists are seen as competent but untrustworthy

If the thousands of vaccine scientists were just interested in funding and vaccines really were bad, then these scientists are putting millions of kids at risk just to keep their funding. Same thing with the thousands of climate scientists. If humanity is not impacting the environment, then climate scientists are willing to risk the world’s economy just to secure their funding. Talk about a lack of trust! If any of this were true, scientists would quite simply be some of the worst people in the world.

4. Why do recipe writers lie (and lie and lie) about how long it takes to caramelise onions

Telling the truth about caramelized onions would turn a lot of dinner-in-half-an-hour recipes into dinner-in-a-little-over-an-hour recipes.

Caramelising onions takes time. If you’re an amateur cook like me, then even dicing onions takes time. Cooking, in general, takes time. We look at shows like Masterchef or Jamie’s 15 minute meals and come to believe that we too can have a three course meal up in a fraction of an hour. But guess what, if we cooked the way Jamie expects us to, we will probably get a meal up in 20 minutes, but will be left with about 2 hours worth of cleaning!

Bits & Bobs

An etymological map of the brain
A look back at the NYT magazine from 2004
A fun story on the family that owns the Nets domain

Merry Holidays Everyone!
Merry Holidays Everyone!


The Favourites List is a somewhat irregular (usually biweekly) roundup of things I’ve enjoyed reading. Expect some fiction, long-form writing, travel, food, technology. I usually link to free content, but occasionally to items behind a paywall (because I think paying for quality content is awesome!).

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