Neuroscience under attack!

To follow up on my musings on the Paul Tough event last week, I came across this article in the New York Times this weekend about the seeming backlash that neuroscience is facing in the popular press. I love the tack that this writer takes, since it aligns with my own bias: I try to be cautious and to avoid being overly causation-minded about the connections between mind, brain, and education. I think that her cynicism and caution are useful:

The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, creating phenomena like neuro law, which, in part, uses the evidence of damaged brains as the basis for legal defense of people accused of heinous crimes, or neuroaesthetics, a trendy blend of art history and neuroscience.

I completely agree with the idea that we can’t just point fMRI scanners at children’s brains and make bold claims about the “punctuation center in the brain” or that certain patterns in activation mean certain things all the time.

I don’t, however, think that we have to go so far as to just push neuroscience out of the conversation. It’s critical to be skeptical, to be conservative, and to be thoughtful in consuming media that claims to make sense of the inner workings of the brain. However, I don’t think this means to abandon neuroscience altogether. I think it demands that we as educators and as citizens be willing to have a more nuanced conversation. When we ask questions about whether certain things that happen in the brain have particular connections to behavior, we have to learn to be satisfied with an answer less final than “yes” or “no”. Culturally, we’ve got to get a lot more comfortable with answers like “it’s complicated.”


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