Bad, bad science and why learning about real science is important

I had to chuckle a lot to myself this morning when I went over the Ben Goldacre’s site Bad Science and read through the article on the fad of Brain Gym. Thankfully my kids have mainly managed to avoid this – but oh! what a lot of twaddle dressed up in pseudoscience!

Basically for those who haven’t been exposed to Brain Gym, it’s a series of exercises intended to integrate neural circuitry so that kids learn more easily. A lot of the exercises are fun, they certainly make you think about coordination and they make people laugh – great stuff! Where they fall over is in the use of pseudoscientific claims about the mechanisms involved…
Now Ben makes some really good points about how easy it is for both lay people, and people with a degree of sophistication and knowledge, to be bluffed by statements that throw in a few polysyllabic words…

He reports on some experiments discussed in the “March 2008 edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, which elegantly show that people will buy into bogus explanations much more readily when they are dressed up with a few technical words from the world of neuroscience.”

Here is one of their scenarios. Experiments have shown that people are quite bad at estimating the knowledge of others: if we know the answer to a piece of trivia, we overestimate the extent to which other people will know that answer too. A “without neuroscience” explanation for this phenomenon was: “The researchers claim that this [overestimation] happens because subjects have trouble switching their point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their own knowledge on to others.” (This happened to be a “good” explanation.)

A “with neuroscience” explanation – and a cruddy one too – was this: “Brain scans indicate that this [overestimation] happens because of the frontal lobe brain circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge. Subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.” The neuroscience information is irrelevant to the logic of the explanation.

The subjects were from three groups: everyday people, neuroscience students, and neuroscience academics. All three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones, but the subjects in the two non-expert groups judged that the explanations with logically irrelevant neurosciencey information were more satisfying than the explanations without. What’s more, the bogus neuroscience information had a particularly strong effect on peoples’ judgments of bad explanations. As quacks are well aware, adding scientific-sounding but conceptually uninformative information makes it harder to spot a dodgy explanation.

Go on over to the post, and see for yourself – and then think about some of the pseudoscience involved in chronic pain management… I think many of the explanations for ‘believing’ in Brain Gym apply to therapists adhering to ‘NEW’ ‘IMPROVED’ treatments for things like CRPS or back pain. Let’s hear what you think…


  1. Hi, Do you know if you’re able to seperate your XML feed by post cateegory. I’d like to add it to my rss reader but don’t know if there is a dedicated url to acommplish this or if it’s simply a sytanx that can be appended in order to achieve this?

    1. erm….you’re speaking a foreign language to me! I’m sorry I don’t think I can separate posts out by category, I think that it’s only by whole feed – but I’ll ask the WordPress people and see what they say. Thanks for getting in touch!

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