Explanatory Neurophilia ≅ Physics Envy?

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Jonathan Weinberg wrote to suggest that perhaps "explanatory neurophilia" (the fact that people tend to be impressed and persuaded by neuroscientific details even if they provide no explanatory value) is part of a larger phenomenon that also includes "physics envy" (the desire to achieve in other sciences the success of mathematical reasoning from first principles that Newton brought to physics).

The cited post by DougJ at Balloon Juice suggests the relationship explicitly:

There’s a more general science envy in the nexus of finance, social science, and media. In a few weeks, Bobo Brooks will come out with a book purporting to be about neuroscience which will in fact be a bunch of pop psychology about how conservatives are right about everything.

This has certainly been a recurring theme in David Brooks' columns over the past few years (see "David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006; "David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006; "David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008; "An inquiry concerning the principles of morals", 4/7/2009), but if he's got a book on this topic coming out, you can't pre-order it on amazon yet…

Getting back to the "explanatory neurophilia ≅ physics envy" idea, it seems to me that there are some analogies but also some striking differences. The research of Weisberg et al. on "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations" suggests that logically irrelevant neuroscience impresses novices and outsiders, but not experts. In contrast, Lo and Mueller argue that the seductive allure of irrelevant but interesting mathematics has distorted the judgment of the most highly-regarded economists and financial analysts.

For those who are interested in the sociology of economics (about which I obviously know very little), I recommend Deirdre McCloskey's The Secret Sins of Economics (summary and discussion here).

And in any area of rational inquiry, the best advice comes from Dick Hamming: "Beware of finding what you're looking for".


  1. Layra said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    I know quite a few mathematicians who consider economists and financial analysts to be "novices and outsiders".

  2. Joe said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    I just read Dierdre McCloskey's article and it was very entertaining and disturbing. Is it possible that the reliance on "statistical significance" is contributing to the current "placebo effect" conundrum (see http://www.wired.com/medtech/drugs/magazine/17-09/ff_placebo_effect?currentPage=all). It seems incorrect to conclude that "placebos are getting more effective" rather than to conclude that there may be something systemically wrong with how drug effectiveness (including those of placebos) is measured.

  3. Mark P said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    logically irrelevant neuroscience impresses novices and outsiders, but not experts

    This would be the case with lots of bogus physics "applications".

    Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is frequently applied outside physics, to the chagrin of people who know what it actually means. Catch this corker:


  4. chris said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    the seductive allure of irrelevant but interesting mathematics has distorted the judgment of the most highly-regarded economists and financial analysts.

    That's because they're "highly regarded" by (wealthy and influential) people with political axes to grind. Large portions of the field of economics are still on a level with alchemy or astrology in terms of scientific rigor, and the existence of well-funded cheerleaders for foreordained conclusions doesn't help.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    I suspect that one reason for the interest in "explanatory neurophilia" is that lots of people really do believe in an immaterial soul. I looked around on line for a survey, but couldn't find one, so without data I'll estimate that more than half of Americans believe that.

  6. Ken Grabach said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    In the case of bogus physics, I have often been struck by the incongruity of a common physics metaphor: In popular conversation, and in published media, we often hear of a significant advance in an idea or a policy, representing a 'quantum leap' in said idea or policy. The implication in context is that this is a 'giant leap for mankind' or some such. In practice in physics, of course, a quantum is a very small amount, the smallest mearurable. So that a true quantum leap would be like a baby step. I don't know, but in most cases I would bet the intention was for a different meaning.

    I wonder if it is the presence of 'q' and 'um' that gets so many confused. It is a latinate term in physics, it must mean something important (maybe big?) so let's use it.

  7. Mark N. said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    @Ken: I take the metaphorical use of "quantum leap" to be referring to the discontinuous nature of the jump, without passing through intermediate states.

  8. Jim F said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Ken has hit upon a big peeve of mine although I had not considered Mark N.'s more charitable explanation. I suppose my main objection is that the word in this kind of context doesn't really have much of a meaning at all. It seems to mostly just convey a sense of science-yness — that what the author is saying is somehow smart and forward looking.

  9. Josh said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 6:23 pm


    This provides a more detailed description of what Mark is saying. The only real change to the vernacular definition is that it implies progress. The non-scientific usage tends to be contextually removed from its scientific usage, so while it may it may sound imprecise to somebody familiar with the physics, there's no real harm.

    I'm personally a little more worried about the common usage of the word "evolution", which has that same connotation of progress. Since evolution as science is very much a part of public discourse, that connotation can cause a lot of problems in understanding.

  10. Private Zydeco said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 1:25 am

    @Chris – "evangelists" as they are called, selon ad. flak
    vogue (aptly enough).

  11. Kevin Brubeck Unhammer said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 2:23 am

    @Keith: physics envy has a longstanding tradition within linguistics. I'd say this post is completely relevant to LanguageLog :-)

  12. Kevin Brubeck Unhammer said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 2:26 am

    @Keith: physics envy has a longstanding tradition within linguistics (I'd post links but the spam filter stopped me, just try the first couple of google hits for physics envy linguistics). I'd say this post is completely relevant to Language Log :-)

  13. Haamu said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    Bah. I blame the bonehead who coined "quantum leap" without regard for the fact that "leap" connotes to almost everyone the sense of a large jump. If you don't want people to get the wrong idea, why not "quantum hop" or some such?

    I think physicists ought to be on the hook for precision in language just as much as laymen ought to be held to account for precision in scientific thought.

    (And yes, I know that from the point of view of a photon, it might indeed be a "leap.")

  14. Mike Maxwell said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    Jerry Friedman said, "I suspect that one reason for the interest in "explanatory neurophilia" is that lots of people really do believe in an immaterial soul." I don't get this. I would think it would be the other way around: if you believe in an immaterial soul, then it must be independent of neurons. Hence neuroscience explanations would be either irrelevant (maybe the brain is a sort of radio receiver tuned to emissions from a particular soul) or just wrong.

  15. Alexander Repiev said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 4:05 am

    Perhaps this might be of interest:
    “’Physics envy’ – physics abysmally misconstrued!” – http://www.repiev.ru/articles/Physics-Envy.htm

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