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Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience

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As mentioned here and here, there's a lot of interest in brain imaging and social science.  A forthcoming paper (available here in pdf) in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science by Edward Vul of MIT and colleagues is getting a lot of blogosphere attention.  Sharon Begley of Newsweek has a nice review and concludes:

More than half admitted using a statistical strategy that, write Vul and his colleagues, "grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams." Other statistical snafus, they say, "likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases," and they call on social neuroscientists who use fMRI to reanalyze their raw data "to correct the scientific record."

 

What's striking about the discredited papers--though in fairness, the skewered authors should be given a chance to defend themselves--is how blithely they tend to (as mutuallyoccluded put it) "vindicate the crudest of stereotypes--that women love shopping because they're "gatherers", that girls have different kinds of brains and need to be taught separately, that gay men and straight women read maps similarly." If you were wondering how, exactly, problematic studies got past the peer review at these top journals, that's a clue: scientists no less than other mortals love to have their hunches, prejudices and stereotypes validated by empirical evidence. Maybe they didn't look too critically at studies that did exactly that.


A reply (pdf) and rebuttal have also been posted.

More are sure to follow.




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