Hidden depths: Brain science is drowning in uncertainty


By Ingfei Chen Editorial: “Neuroscience wrongs will make a right“ (Image: Paweł Jonca) (Image: Craig Bennett et al) IT’S FOUR in the afternoon when I meet John Ioannidis, but lines of fatigue are deepening under his eyes. He’s exhausted with jet lag after a whirlwind tour of 20 European cities, where he’s been lecturing and brainstorming with colleagues. In a corner of his office, I spot two oddly shaped bags, which hold gear for his sport of choice, épée fencing. It seems a fitting hobby for this soft-spoken professor, who is a crusader for good science. Statistical logic and careful scrutiny of evidence are the weapons that Ioannidis nimbly wields. His previous targets have included spurious claims about drugs and other medical treatments from clinical trials backed by the pharmaceutical industry. Now his gaze has turned to the brain. Joining a growing army of critics, he has documented serious flaws in the ways that many – if not the vast majority of – neuroscience studies are designed, analysed and reported. That should perhaps be a warning whenever we read headlines about studies capturing snapshots of the brain on “love“, “fear“, “religion” or “politics“. It turns out that many of those colourful brain scans may offer little more than mirages, obscuring the true picture of the human mind in action. Worst still, the problems are not just confined to a few misleading brain-scan reports. From experiments investigating the action of genes and individual molecules to studies linking brain structure to mental health,
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