Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wilful Misreadings

An article in Die Zeit is making my blood boil. Under the title "Alles nur die Gene" (which one might liberally translate as "My Genes Made Me Do It"), the irate Tanja Dückers rants about the current omnipresence of neuroscience in public debate, which she considers a mere fashionable bandwagon upon which unthinking and manipulable stars and starlets are jumping by the score.

This kind of popular gene claptrap, she claims, is not only "irritating", it is dangerous. Neuroscience, she argues, denies the relevance of cultural influences on human experience, identity and behaviour. It is (of course), reductive -- a concerted effort by the science Mafia to boil down the infinitely complex web of human experiences and interactions to a simple formula. And it destroys any kind of morality by denying the possibility of self-control -- in the end, she implies, we can happily go around killing people and then point to our genes as the real perpetrators.

Alas, it seems that Ms Dückers has not done her homework, otherwise she wouldn't be writing such reductive ... stuff. (I wanted to write a different word, but my innate capacity for self-control intervened.) Apparently she hasn't read any cognitive science at all, only skimmed the intellectually dubious surface of the internet for appropriate information (and in a rather willy-nilly manner to boot).

Her main source is a Yahoo News release (investigative journalism at its finest) about the recent study on happiness performed at the University of Edinburgh. In this study of 973 pairs of twins, the researchers found out that "genes have a considerable influence on whether a person is happy in life or not."

No, guv, there is no sign that she read the study itself.

Hm. "Considerable influence." Hardly evidence for extremist and sinister genetic determinism, is it? It's a pity that Ms Dückers doesn't seem to have read to the end of the Yahoo-snippet (brief though it is -- time for Zeit journalists must be infinitely valuable), otherwise she would have stumbled upon the not insignificant piece of information that the Edinburgh researchers also emphasise the "considerable influence" of environmental factors upon personal happiness.

Her other source is the scandal-mongering German weekly Focus (once launched as a deliberate antidote to the leftish excesses of Der Spiegel), which last year ran a story titled "Scene of the Crime: The Brain" and sub-titled "The 'Evil' Within." (my translation).

Interestingly enough Ms Dückers seems to have misremembered the subtitle (where have all those googling skills gone, I wonder?), which according to her runs: "How Human Beings Become Criminals" (also my translation).

As far as the tabloidy style goes, she has a point, of course, but what kind of source for this kind of topic is Focus anyway? To conflate popular science journalism of this ilk with serious neuroscience (although common in the media, as Ben Goldacre has unflaggingly been pointing out) is childish, incorrect and insulting to serious scholars. Would neuroscientists use an esoteric category like "evil", I wonder?

Maybe her misremembering wasn't that accidental after all ....

The greatest clanger she drops is when she depicts the Frankfurt neuroscientist Wolf Singer as a latter day Rasputin ventilating his dangerous lore at Chancellor Merkel's 50th birthday party. She quotes (though without a link so that interested people might check for themselves): "There is no free will. Human beings are steered by neurons."

Well for starters, Ms Dückers, neurons are not genes (but given that your article is brimming with suchlike conflations, one gets the feeling that subtle distinctions of this kind are not your priority anyway). Neurons are electrically excitable cells through which information is processed and transmitted. Singer is therefore perfectly right in saying that we are steered by neurons.

And where exactly does the potential for self-control and "decency" ("Anstand") defended so vociferously by Ms Dückers originate, if not in neuronal activity? Is it not reasonable to think that genetic factors might have a "considerable influence" upon that activity?

How else but through genetic, neuronal and biochemical mechanisms do our bodies function? By divine intervention? Culture?

Ms Dückers's article resounds with the (possibly heart-felt) concern about the ethical implications of neuroscience and genetics. However, she should also perhaps consider more carefully the ethical obligation of journalists to present an image of science that is more than an assemblage of snide, superficial and panicked prejudices.


kamenin said...

Thank You! In a recent post I cited Dückers' article in passing to show how brain researchers gets demonized by people without any clue because they just don't like the interpretation of the results. And I got actually called out for that by some other 'science' blogger, because she doesn't believe in neuroscience either, so I had to be one believing blindly in sciences and had no right to attack Dückers.

When it comes to brain research some people clearly refuse to use theirs.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks so much for the positive comments -- both here and on your blog, which we are happy to discover!