My Science Is Harder Than Your Science…Bla, Bla, Bla.

There are several false assumptions that proliferate discourse in the media and among scientists about neuroscience, and science in general, that I believe are largely driven by artificial distinctions drawn between the “hard” and “soft” sciences. I recently came across an article on the fusion of architecture and neuroscience, that acts as just one example of a broader obsession and delusion about anything prefixed with “neuro”. The premise is that this relatively new field  is exciting because it provides an objective “window into the mind” that can better inform technologies and hard sciences than softer sciences like psychology, economics or sociology.

This particular article, examines how knowledge of the mind can improve architectural design. It asks questions like, can neuroarchitecture foster scientific discovery or improve development of social skills among autistic children by clever manipulation of aesthetics and physical design? While I agree that neuroscience can inform many fields including architecture, I object to the explicit tone that is too common in discourse on neuro[fill in the blank]. That is that neuroscience is a blessing because it is the first science of the mind objective enough to be fused with other hard sciences.

Here is  a sample from the article which quotes, Eduardo Macagno, professor of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego:

“We are now really beginning to understand better how to measure the responses to the built environment without relying on psychology, social science, observational behavior. [Those studies] don’t have the quantitative and objective experimental approach that we believe neuroscience brings to the interface with architecture.”

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of social science that is driven by many things, but language is probably what throws people off the most. Macagno is confusing the tools of research with the method. Sciences that use new and exciting tools cloaked in complex technical language are often considered more objective, despite the fact that they use the same (or less rigorous) research methods as sciences with tools that are more easily understood in plain english.

One tool used in neuroscience is the fMRI which measures changes in blood flow to different areas of the brain. By measuring relative increases in blood flow to certain regions of the brain scientists can develop insights into brain function. While this is a powerful tool, accurate interpretation of results requires advanced training in technical language, physiology, methodology and statistics. Cloaked in complex language, people outside the field often fail to recognized that fMRI studies are usually correlational, relative increases in blood flow are only associated with increased neural activity, and blood flow lags behind neural events in the brain by about 2-6 seconds, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the connection between a stimulus or behavior and it’s associated brain region. This being said many similar methodological limitations are faced by the softer psychological sciences and even the harder sciences like physics.

It is frustrating to see scientists speaking in such absolutes about the quality of research going on in one field versus another. It points to a lack of homework on methodology, and snap judgements based on familiarity of language. Generally, the hard/soft distinction in science is not about rigor of methodology, it is more a distinction between inaccessible and colloquial language used to explain tools of the trade. Of course variability of the object of study might have something to do with it. But that is for another post.

[Featured photo courtesy of Royal Anthropological Institute’s Education Outreach Programme]

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One thought on “My Science Is Harder Than Your Science…Bla, Bla, Bla.

  1. I think there is an interesting analogy between fMRI and DNA. The decoding of the human genome was a huge advance in our understanding of biology. Yet it turns out to be the most basic, mechanical substrate on which our bodies function. The hierarchy of complexity built on top of it continues to be studied intensely, because there’s still so much we don’t know about it.

    Thanks to the fMRI studies, we know that stimulus x leads to blood response y ad nauseum. In fifty years, we may well have something like a human genome of neuroscience: a massive matrix mapping an ungodly list of stimuli to blood flow responses. How much would this tell us about what makes humans tick?

    I expect we would find, like with DNA sequencing, that the relationships between the base of the hierarchy and the things we care about in day-to-day life are difficult to untangle.

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