Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blobology and neurosexism

I first learned of Cordelia Fine's new book, DELUSIONS OF GENDER: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, on the Log a while back, but have only now read a couple of reviews (and I'm not likely to read the book. But let me quote from Wray Herbert's review in the Washington Post:

About halfway through this irreverent and important book, cognitive psychologist Cordelia Fine offers a fairly technical explanation of the fMRI, a common kind of brain scan. By now, everyone is familiar with these head-shaped images, with their splashes of red and orange and green and blue. But far fewer know what those colors really mean or where they come from.

It's not as if these machines are taking color videos of the human brain in action -- not even close. In fact, these high-tech scanners are gathering data several steps removed from brain activity and even further from behavior. They are measuring the magnetic quality of hemoglobin, as a proxy for the blood oxygen being consumed in particular regions of the brain. If the measurement is different from what one would expect, scientists slap some color on that region of the map: hot, vibrant shades such as red if it's more than expected; cool, subdued tones if it's less.

Fine calls this "blobology": the science -- or art -- of creating images and then interpreting them as if they have something to do with human behavior. Her detailed explanation of brain-scanning technology is essential to her argument, as it conveys a sense of just how difficult it is to interpret such raw data. She isn't opposed to neuroscience or brain imaging; quite the opposite. But she is ardently against making authoritative interpretations of ambiguous data.
Now, heck, maybe I will read this book. Anyway, I sure like that attitude. I had heard blobology before, I'm pretty sure (and it gets a good set of g-hits). But only now does it strike me as filling a really big lexical gap in scientific vocabulary: We've got ways of referring to the gross over-interpretation of shaky evidence, but nothing nearly so catchy as blobology.

I don't know if it's Word of the Year material, yet, but I say we start using it.

Image from here.

1 comment:

john.list said...

For some reason this post brought to mind the researcher who scanned a dead fish to highlight the dangers of scientists reading too much from MRI scans.