Mind & Body

You'll Probably Believe Fake Science if It Comes With a Brain Image

If we showed you a study saying that watching TV improves math skills, would you believe the findings? What if that study included an image showing the areas of the brain that lit up while watching TV? According to research, you're more likely to believe brain science if there's an image of a brain along with it — and you really shouldn't.

Worth A Thousand Words

In 2008, Colorado State University assistant psychology professor David McCabe and his team published a study in the journal Cognition called "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning". The study had participants read three articles about brain imaging studies, each of which were not only fake, but also drew illogical conclusions. For example, one fictitious study claimed that because both watching television and doing math problems activated the temporal lobe, the evidence suggested that watching TV improved math skills. The participants then answered questions about how well the article was written and how much sense it made.

It turns out that participants were much more likely to rate the article as high quality and logically sound if it included a picture of a brain than if it included a bar graph or no image at all. Interestingly, articles with 3D brain images even got higher ratings than those with flat brain scans, even though both highlighted the areas activated in the study.

Scientists Make Mistakes, Too

So what's wrong with this picture? If a study has an image to back up its findings, shouldn't you be more likely to believe it? Not if that image backs up faulty findings. The errors that the Cognition study used in its fake articles are in fact surprisingly common, as an article by psychologist and neuroscientist Russell Poldrack pointed out. That "epidemic of reasoning" usually takes this form: when study subjects do activity A, brain area Z is active. In other studies, when subjects engage in thinking task B, brain area Z is active. Therefore, because brain area Z is active during activity A, activity A must cause thinking task B.

For example, one study scanned people's brains while they punished players who broke rules in an economic-exchange game. Because the same area of the brain lit up while they punished the accused as when subjects in other studies felt a sense of reward, the study concluded that the punishers felt a sense of reward. This is an example of affirming the consequent, a fallacy where you make an if/then statement ("if it's raining, the streets are wet"), note that the "then" is true, and conclude that the "if" must be true, when in fact, you can only logically do the reverse. An active area of the brain is the "then" part of the argument. You can't use it to infer the "if."

So what's a science fan to do? Just be aware that brain images aren't airtight evidence. Scientists are human, and at risk of all the same biases and errors that the rest of us are. Read scientific news with a critical eye, and you'll be better off for it.

For more critical thinking about brain research, check out "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior" by Scott O. Lilienfeld,‎ Steven Jay Lynn,‎ John Ruscio,‎ and Barry L. Beyerstein. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 10, 2017

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