Neuro-sceptic smells snake-oil

The Undiscovered Mind
December 24, 1999

John Horgan states the aim of his second book on page five: "[to] examine mind-related science in much greater detail than The End of Science did." In other words: to hammer in securely those nails that The End of Science had left half sticking out in the coffin of mind-related science.

The fallacy that subtends the whole book is revealed on page eight: "A century's worth of research in psychiatry, genetics, neuroscience and adjacent fields has not yielded a paradigm powerful enough to obviate Freud once and for all. If psychoanalysis is the equivalent of phlogistonI so are all its would-be successors."

Apply that argument to biology. "A century's worth of research in evolution and adjacent fields (genetics, palaeontology etc) has not yielded a paradigm powerful enough to obviate creationism once and for all". Therefore? "Therefore, if creationism is the equivalent of phlogiston, so is Darwinism, and genetics, and palaeontology, andI" There still are people who believe in a flat earth, in a hollow earth, in their daily horoscope; some delve in alchemy. What does that make of geology, of astronomy, of chemistry? Is Horgan being serious?

He must be, for he devotes a whole chapter to how inane Freudian psychoanalysis is (point taken); how it is nevertheless still alive (true) because nothing has completely ousted it (the catch is in "completely"), and therefore "If psychoanalysis is an imperfect and unproven mode of mind-science I so are all its would-be successors" (humbug). The next two chapters, "Psychotherapy and the dodo hypothesis", "Prozac and other placebos", attempt to prove the point by showing how drugs and therapies, from sleep therapy to shock therapy via all kinds of psycho-therapies, do not deliver demonstrably better than placebos or nothing at all. There is not one set of figures or statistics. So much does he want us to accept the equivalence, that, in conclusion, we are regaled with the story of how a girlfriend jilted young Horgan, who fell into a depression so long and dreadful that, were he to become so depressed again, today he would even contemplate shock therapy. Not because he believes in it - he has just spent three pages panning it - but because he believes that "hope itself can heal", and to preserve this hope, he "would try to forget that most people who receive shock therapy for depression relapse within four months." Castration was once advocated by some for all sorts of ailments, real or imagined (masturbation for instance). Come on John, how about a mention for castration therapy? Just try to forget that on most people it seldom grows back and all will be well.

Having thus filled three chapters, Horgan turns to genetics, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence and the question of consciousness to fill another four. The message remains the same all through: nothing is certain, there is much dissension, claims do not work, the mind is mysterious.

It is difficult to tell whether Horgan seems not to have understood what he is writing about or whether he may have misrepresented it to suit. Thus on Karl Popper, he writes: "We can never prove our theories are true, Popper proposed; we can only disprove theories." And then immediately misinterprets Popper: "All knowledge is thus tentative, provisional." Is that confusion between theory and knowledge a sleight-of-words pushing an agenda or mere ignorance?

It is also difficult to tell when Horgan does not understand from when he refuses to understand. Thus under the title "Patricia Goldman-Rakic's explanatory gap", Horgan recounts how, after a lengthy explanation that the professor at the Yale school of medicine concluded with "So there you have the neurophysiology of cognition," there was a long awkward silence, and he confessed "having a hard time grasping the significance of her work". In plain English: "I have understood nothing but I won't admit it," or "This is balderdash, but manners forbid me to tell you," or again "Point taken, but it does not suit me, so let me pretend I missed it." Whichever, reader beware, for much of the book consists of such interviews, or experiences at conferences.

The bias is so painfully evident that it does not matter who was interviewed or what conferences were attended; all become caricatures, painted puppets in Horgan's mystery play. A "petite, elegantly coiffed woman" in a "white cashmere sweater and gold earrings", like Goldman-Rakic; tall moustached men in collarless shirts splashed with blue flowers, like the unnamed chap who slaps a virtual-reality gadget on Horgan, sending him "into the heart of consciousness". Horgan wakes up to the guffaws of the audience, realises he has his mouth open, closes itI "Slowly, reluctantly, I took off the goggles and headphones and re-entered the world." End of book.

The message is clear: neuroscience is a fraud of Freudian proportion, neuro-scientists snake-oil artists.

Putting this book down, I count what it has taught me. In fields unfamiliar - that Goldman-Rakic wears white cashmere sweaters and gold earrings, but nothing substantial of her work. In those familiar - errors: "the term bell curve refers to the shape of a graph formed by plotting the IQ scores of a large population". Everywhere, gaping omissions. In a chapter on Freud, not a word on Alexander Luria's monumental work into brain disorders. In a chapter on artificial intelligence, not a word on how neuro-science is to the brain what reverse engineering is to computer software and hardware, and how neuroscientists are very much like hackers trying to break into our grey cells. Not scientists, but craftsmen. So were mathematicians when mathematics was bean counting, statisticians when statistics was gambling. After a century of work, neuro-science is still a craft-but it is absurd to suggest that neuro-scientists can never become real scientists.

Jacques M. Guy was formerly a research scientist in natural language understanding and artificial intelligence, Telstra Research Laboratories, Australia.


The Undiscovered Mind: How the Brain Defies Explanation

Author - John Horgan
ISBN - 0 297 84225 0
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 325

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