Preventing Explanatory Neurophilia

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A paper that I've recommended several times: Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, & Jeremy R. Gray, "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanation", Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20(3): 470-477, 2008.   Popular presentations can be found in an article by Paul Bloom in Seed Magazine, "Seduced by the Flickering Lights of the Brain", 6/27/2006, and in two LL posts, "Blinded by neuroscience", 6/28/2006, and "Distracted by the brain", 6/6/2007.

There's another article by Deena Weisberg, "Caveat lector: The presentation of neuroscience information in the popular media", The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice 6(1) 51-56, 2008. Media coverage includes Margaret Talbot, "Duped", The New Yorker, 7/2/2007; Matt Hutson, "Neurorealism", The New York Times Magazine, 12/9/2007; Ben Goldacre, "Nonsense dressed up as neuroscience", The Guardian, 2/16/2008; Jonah Lehrer, "Picturing our thoughts", The Boston Globe, 8/17/2008.

I believe that J.D. Trout is responsible for suggesting the term "explanatory neurophilia" to describe the fact that "non-expert consumers of behavioral explanations assign greater standing to explanations that contain neuroscientific details, even if these details provide no additional explanatory value" ("Seduction without cause: uncovering explanatory neurophilia", Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(8): 281-282 2008).  This terminological innovation may confuse a few biologists who already use neurophilia to describe substances or processes with a special affinity for nervous tissue, but it's useful for the rest of us.

Why bring all this up again today? Because Deena Weisberg is speaking in the Penn Neuroethics Program Talk Series today at noon on "Explanatory neurophilia: How it happens and how it can be prevented."  I'm especially eager to hear about the "how it can be prevented" part.  Unfortunately, I have a site visit today that will probably prevent me from going to her talk, but I hope to learn about the content by other means, and will reveal the recommended prophylaxis when I learn what it is.


  1. Simon Spero said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    There's an interesting post by one of the subjects in Experiment 2 of the Seductive Allure study online at

    It's interesting to note that his response is to question the methodology, but to generally agree with the conclusions. The author is now a Research Assistant at some university in West Philidelphia, so he must have learned something…


  2. Sili said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 3:02 am

    It may be less polite than "neurophilia", but I prefer to take a page out of Ben Goldacre's book (not literally – I have still to buy it) and call it "neurobollocks".

    I guess that's better fit to the reporting (and 'research'), itself, than to people's like for it, though.

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