The “knowing-speaking gap” and the abuse of neuroscientific authority



The knowing-speaking gap

Last night I went to taping of live Tech podcast that featured non-fiction author Douglas Rushkoff as a guest. (I’ll try to link to it once it get’s published). Overall, I felt the show was funny but in huge need of either fact-checking or authoritative guests, which Rushkoff was not. Unfortunately, it fell into an uncanny valley of edutainment — not accurate enough to be informative but the diversions into Rushkoff’s unreliable opinions stopped it from being funny enough to be entertaining. To be fair, producing a live show is difficult and it’s a new show finding it’s feet.

The show really drove home an issue that was a big difficulty for Science Vs, which I’ll call “the knowing-speaking gap.” When we looked for scientists for the show it was hard to find someone who was a good scientist and good talent — scientists that both knew their research and their field inside-out and were also able and willing to speak about it in an interesting and dynamic way. More broadly it seems like people who actually know things are unwilling or unable to speak about things and garner an audience that listens to them, and people who are great speakers and performers (and I’d count Rushkoff in this camp), often talk about everything, regardless of whether or not they know what they’re talking about.

Techno-pessimist alarmists will repeat and distort the same stories over and over. For the record, no, Target didn’t know a girl was pregnant before she did herself. Pregnancy hormones don’t alter our department store purchases in unconscious ways. As Forbes reported, Target did correctly target ads at a woman they suspected was pregnant because of the way she started conscientiously altered her shopping to prefer for the baby:

[Pole] ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

These are not mysterious patterns, beyond the grasp of humans, performed by some scary all-knowing algorithms. Just data scientists, looking for patterns in data, that actually make a lot of sense. Creepy that they’re doing it? Maybe, but let’s Snopes our stories before we record them, or at least give a verbal caveat before talking out of our asses into a mic.

What really bothered me though was Rushkoff’s abuse of neuroscience. I agreed with many of his sentiments, just not the false authority he tried to invoke, by tying his opinions to neuroscience that doesn’t exist or can’t be credibly linked to the topic at hand. This technique seems to be effective, (at least in print), but it’s deceptive, intellectually dishonest, and weakens public understanding of neuroscience and what we actually understand about the brain. Rushkoff and journalists aren’t the only ones guilty of this, I was also rankled by Lisa Feldmann Barrett’s NYT essay this week, which I’ll get to below.

Rushkoff made wild claims, and I’m paraphrasing: going on social media doesn’t engage your prefrontal cortex it engages your amygdala. What? Is Facebook a giant fucking spider and I never realized until now? People like Rushkoff seem to have expanded outmoded triune-brain theory by learning the names of brain areas and memorizing a keyword for each: amygdala = fear, hippocampus = memory, etc. But still it’s a hierarchy with prefrontal cortex at the top representing everything it means to be human.

Then he throws in some buzzwords like mirror neurons and oxytocin for good measure. According to Rushkoff, social media (as opposed face-to-face interactions) doesn’t result in mirror neuron activation or oxytocin release. Sorry, Rushkoff, but mirror neuron’s link to empathy is over-hyped, and most importantly no human mirror neuron activity has involved face-to-face interactions. The fMRI studies which have identified mirror systems (not mirror neurons) and the small study looking for mirror neurons in patients getting brain surgery were conducted by showing people videos–yes, videos, the main type of content shared and consumed on social media. Is excessive social media use unhealthy — likely, based on epidemiological studies — though there are still correlation/causation issues here. But think before you speak and don’t just invent brain mechanisms because people might actually believe you, and when they later find out it’s bogus, it decreases their trust in both scientists and journalists.

The abuse of neuroscientific authority

Regarding Lisa Feldman Barrett’s article, I’m confused what happened here. Here’s a scientist, who I thought was an exception to the rule, a talented scientist and communicator who I think did a great job of presenting her work on Invisibilia.

Barrett correctly identifies the dangers of chronic stress and the fact that things we think of as purely mental states like stress impact our physical health through the production of stress hormones and inflammatory signalers like cytokines. So far so good, this is neuroscience 101. But then she says:

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

Okay, I can get behind this. If certain types of speech or social environments are linked to chronic stress  and they’re affecting people’s health we should try to fix these problems. (And, indeed, racism has been linked to hypertension.) Later in the article she continues:

The scientific findings I described above provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society. In short, the answer depends on whether the speech is abusive or merely offensive.

Offensiveness is not bad for your body and brain. Your nervous system evolved to withstand periodic bouts of stress, such as fleeing from a tiger, taking a punch or encountering an odious idea in a university lecture.

What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.

Okay, so to Barrett, “offensive speech” causes acute but not chronic stress, therefore it doesn’t impact health and should be permitted. “Abusive speech” creates an environment of chronic stress which therefore negatively impacts health and is therefore violent, justifying it to banned from college campuses.

That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.

On the other hand, when the political scientist Charles Murray argues that genetic factors help account for racial disparities in I.Q. scores, you might find his view to be repugnant and misguided, but it’s only offensive. It is offered as a scholarly hypothesis to be debated, not thrown like a grenade. There is a difference between permitting a culture of casual brutality and entertaining an opinion you strongly oppose. The former is a danger to a civil society (and to our health); the latter is the lifeblood of democracy.

By all means, we should have open conversations and vigorous debate about controversial or offensive topics. But we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.

Look, I’m 100% agreed Milo is a provocateur and of no intellectual merit. He epitomizes the knowledge-speaking gap, he is a performer who masqueraded as an intellectual speaking unpopular and inconvenient truths, but there wasn’t actually any substance there. Murray, who got his PhD from MIT, at least takes an academic approach (though he worked for think tanks with clear agendas and wrote popular books as opposed to peer-reviewed scholarship). Still though, he at least has a reasoned approach and is therefore worthy of being debated in an academic setting (at the least in order to give other academics to be given the opportunity to then respond publicly to his message).

But why are we invoking neuroscience here? How are we linking Milo to chronic stress and Murray to acute stress and why do we need to? Barrett could say she worry that one type of speech is creating a climate of chronic stress which will negatively impact our health and our brains, but to say simply that it does is disingenuous. Are all pundits with offensive opinions are bad for our health according to neuroscience, and all academics with them alright? Convenient how that works out.

Writing instruction often advocates we eliminate “softeners” like, “I think” or “I believe,” for the sake of style. However, when we talk or write about science, we have to be crystal clear what is opinion and what is fact. I trust the opinion of an expert about their subject matter than some dope on the street, but I need them to be clear on what’s their opinion and what’s fact, or I won’t trust them at all.


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