Brain-imaging studies get big play in the press — especially when they’re “social neuroscience” studies that show us the neural underpinnings of empathy, jealousy, and other emotional responses. But a new paper by MIT neuroscientist Edward Vul says that the results themselves can’t be trusted.
Vul analyzed 54 prominent studies that used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to identify the brain areas associated with specific emotions — and found that 28 of them used the statistical methods and filters that were most likely to yield data that would confirm the researchers’ hypotheses. According to Vul, this cherrypicking may have been inadvertent; nevertheless, it produced correlations that “exceed what is statistically possible” and are almost certainly false.
Vul’s paper has created a huge stir in the neuroscience community — and sparked a healthy examination of how to keep such biases out of the complex processes involved in imaging studies, which wield great influence among both scientists and the public.
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