David Brooks “Beyond the Brain” and Brainwashed, the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

brainwashedimagesI chickened out on this post in June since I had not read Brainwashed, the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.  Having finally read it, my impressions  were on point.  The Satel book is half notes and bibliography and index. It is a masterpiece of wild assertions countered with broad caveats.  Having heard Satel on a “Science Friday” podcast, she seemed reasonable and backed down from about every assertion from the book that was countered  by other panel members, Gary Marcus of New York University,  David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine, and Russell Poldrack of the University of Texas. It made me see how tough being a non-first tier scholar at the American Enterprise Institute must be.  She does not make a great amount of money, and I can imagine her boss saying:

Sally, we need a counterpoint to this Obama Brain Initiative.  People love this stuff and it is hurting us.   We will give you complete editorial license.  Well, we might want to make a few points if you do not mind.

I have been in the position of writing to try and please my employer without being a complete hack.  Satel has done this my compiling every half witted pop science brain imaging assertion she could find in the popular press. You could do this for about any subject related to health or medicine, and admittedly it is not without value. (I note that Lillienfeld is a psychology professor at Emory University, but he has shown little indication that he was an actual author.)  Throughout she “loves” neuroscience, but never suggests how it could be improved or what value that it might have for say her main interest, addiction.   Either Satel or AEI or both want to be able to blame whomever they desire for whatever behavior they want to blame.  It seems a rather preemptive attack. Although she sees fairness and justice as part our DNA, she seems way too worried that what neuroscience uncovers will steal our last bit of free will. Modern medicine has already altered who can be appropriately blamed. She does her job by making this point:  “Likewise invoking brain science as a rationale for negating blame and abandoning punishment practices is misguided.”  She goes further by disparaging a completely utilitarian model of justice.  I note that evolution is certainly predisposed to a completely utilitarian model of justice.

I found Satel’s book by way of David Brooks column entitled: “Beyond the Brain,” in the June 17, 2013, New York Times  ostensibly noting that the brain is not the mind.

Gary Marcus, author of Kluge, the Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, writes this in the New Yorker:

Some, like David Brooks in the New York Times, are using books like “Brainwashed” as an excuse to toss out neuroscience altogether. In Brooks’s view, Satel and Lilienfeld haven’t just exposed some bad neuroscience; they’ve gutted the entire field, leading to the radical conclusion that “the brain is not the mind.” Brooks goes so far as to suggest that “it is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind,” and that “there appears to be no dispersed pattern of activation that we can look at and say, ‘That person is experiencing hatred.’ ” The core of his claim is the idea that, if activity is distributed throughout the brain, it cannot be understood or interpreted…..In the current backlash again brain science, it is important to realize that neuroimaging is just one of many tools used in neuroscience. Equally important is the fact that it is widely viewed as rudimentary in its current state—the equivalent of a one-megapixel camera when we are striving to build a gigapixel camera. It seems all but certain that we will continue to understand the brain better as technology allows us to zoom in tighter, with greater precision….But the idea that the mind is separate from the brain no longer makes sense. They are simply different ways of describing the same thing. To talk about the brain is to talk about physiology, neurons, receptors, and neurotransmitters; to talk about the mind is to talk about thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions, and desires. As an old and elegant phrase puts it, “The mind is what the brain does.”

John Quiggin is the author of Zombie Economics. John Quiggin posted on May 31, 2013, “The last three on the island” on the Crooked Timber blog that David Brooks, the columnist, was formerly a conservative reformer. Quiggin says that: “The ‘reformer’ label covers all those self-identified conservatives who would like to present some sort of intellectually coherent policy platform.” Quiggin now considers him a “reliable hack” for the conservative line.  In addition to writing his column, Brooks also appeared at the American Enterprise Institute for a discussion with Satel and Lillienfeld.

Satel so unassuming on “Science Friday” makes this statement in the Atlantic:

“But is this the correct conclusion to draw from neuroscience? If every troublesome behavior is eventually traced to correlates of brain activity that we can detect and visualize, will we be able to excuse it on a don’t-blame-me-blame my-brain theory? Will no one ever be judged responsible?”

Wow!  But if your mind were your brain, this would not be a good excuse and you would be responsible. 

This episode opened my eyes to what probably is a reasonable strategy to influence public opinion. You have your own person do lopsided research to try to make those whose views you disagree with look a little cartoonish.  It gets the crazy stuff together in one place.  Then, you have an “independent” opinion person to use the research as a starting point and get just the ideas that you want out to wider public.  Everyone then has plausible deniability and if done well you have influenced public opinion.