Should We Be More Skeptical of Brain Scan Research?

Our powers of analysis may not be as foolproof as we thought.

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Over at The Guardian, Vaughn Bell argues that our belief in the inherent neutrality of science drawn from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be unwarranted:

Imagine you are playing two roulette wheels. Clearly, the result of one doesn't affect the outcome of the other but sometimes they'll both come up with the same number just due to chance. Now imagine you have a roulette wheel for every point or voxel in the brain. A comparison of any two scans could look like some areas show linked activity when really there is no relationship. Ideally, the analysis should separate roulette wheels from genuine activity, but you may be surprised that hundreds if not thousands of studies have been conducted without such corrections.

Researchers could be discovering patterns where there are none, in other words -- not just between regions of the brain, but also across brain scans and even among multitudes of studies that all build upon one another. It's a worrying thought.

The problem recalls an old Malcolm Gladwell essay explaining that as technology has improved, our abject inability to sort signal from noise has grown ever more apparent. Despite radical advances in imaging technology, the limitations of our own brains are keeping us from producing completely accurate scientific research.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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