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Why Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam Are Phrenologists
neededalj
Why Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam Are Phrenologists

Although I believe it would be edifying for our two favorite 'cognitive neuroscientists' to read this essay, they are not my audience. Rather, I write to fandom, to hopefully shed some light on why these two wankers think they have scientific validity, and why they in fact do not.

sabrina_il wrote a fantastic essay that is about psychology and what it can and cannot tell you. I am going to try and talk more about the history of neuroscience and why I keep referring to the two Dr. Fails as phrenologists (which is a pretty hefty insult among neuroscientists).



Simply put, phrenology was the 'science' and 'studies' surrounding an old theory (most prominent in the 1800s and early 1900s) that the personality and abilities of a person could be determined by examining their skull, on the assumption that the skull reflected the qualities of the brain underneath it.

This is not in fact true.

The shape of the skull has no relation to the properties of the brain underneath it. None. There was no scientific validity to phrenology then, and there is no scientific validity to phrenology today.

While it was still in vogue, phrenology was used to promote and confirm the racism and sexism present in that time period. What better way to confirm that white people were superior to everyone else than to measure their brains? What better way to confirm that women and inferior to men than to note that their heads are smaller?

Eventually scientists took the one idea that phrenology kind of got right (that the brain was somewhat modular; there are different areas devoted to different tasks) and rightfully shoved phrenology into a corner and tried to pretend they were never that stupid.

This brings us to Ogi Ogas, Sai Gaddam, and modern day cognitive neuroscience.

Cognitive neuroscience is the science of linking cognitive processes to the underlying neural structures. This is a fairly new field, and the primary reason for this is that until recently there simply weren't very many ways to look inside a live brain, and there's only so much a dead one can tell you.

Common imaging technologies include EEG, PET, and the current gold standard, fMRI. fMRI is a beautiful thing. It is also incredibly complicated, and our best machines still only have a resolution of about 1-2 mm. This is fantastic compared to any imaging techniques that came before, but is still much larger than a neuron and therefore does not let us take in everything that the brain is doing. In addition, the temporal resolution on fMRI is good but not great, so we still perceive actions at a lag rather than seeing what happens in 'real time'. It is also very difficult to image the subcortical structures (which are deep inside the brain) or certain areas of the brain near sinus and other physiological features in the head.

Possibly the only truly correct aspect of imaging studies Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam have mentioned is that often people extrapolate too far from imaging studies. Imaging studies are notorious for revealing differential activation in one area of the brain and then having the researchers (or the PR people, which is worse) stating that they have found 'the area of the brain that does x'. I promise you, if you ever read something that says 'this area of the brain does x' and 'x' is ANY kind of complicated behavior, you aren't getting the whole story.

...oh, and I forgot my favorite problem with imaging studies. We don't actually have a very good idea of which areas of the brain are where in different people. There's a lot of variation. So when doing imaging, researchers average all of the scans together and do a hell of a lot of processing on the images. It's not at all like taking picture or a video. Which just makes 'this area of the brain does x' even more problematic.

So what are Ogi and Sai trying to do? They are, apparently, modelers. Which means they are attempting to build a model which will mimic the human brain well enough to have predictive power. They used as comparison models of the visual system, which are paragons of simplicity compared to social behavior *or* the subcortical structures. Their examples used the responses of single neurons in the model (whereas now, they propose to use whole STRUCTURES). At one point they actually said that the human visual system was *more* complicated than subcortical structures because they developed later in human evolution. The older = simpler idea is a fallacy so great any evolutionary biologist would find it worthy of beating their heads in, but what can you say. They aren't biologists anymore than they are social scientists.

Needless to say current research is nowhere *near* ready to start putting together a *neural* computer model of human behavior. Cutting edge research today has people finally being able to predict from imaging studies *what* a person is looking at rather than just the fact that they are looking at something. This is a pretty big step forward. It's three worlds removed from being able to link neural structures to social behavior.

Essentially Ogi and Sai looked at current imaging research and said 'I don't think their data justify their conclusions. I know! Let's START with the conclusions and make our data up as we go! We can totally make a model to predict what we already know!' This is why I called them phrenologists. Because they are starting from bad data, and confirming themselves as they go.

It's a testament to how screwed up their ideas are that I can't even link in how they thought their gigantic survey would help them. When people model the brain right now they tend to look at simpler responses; perception of sensation, simple movement. Erotic thought? Social Interaction? No.

There is an area of research right now looking at moral decisions, and finding that they are emotional rather than rational (and hey! arbitrary!). The imaging studies that support these conclusions also show that the areas of the brain implicated in moral decision making encompass most of the cortex and subcortical structures as well. Essentially showing that for higher-order (the highest order) interactions such as those defined by CULTURAL VALUES we use many, many areas of our fascinating and complicated brain. Not individual subcortical structures, but a detailed and right now ineffable interaction between subcortical structures and our cortex.



Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam are attemping to profit off of bad science by cloaking it in complicated terminology and cutting edge technology. We shouldn't let them.


ETA: I now have a second post talking more modeling and what I think Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam intend to do with the 'data'.

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Thank you for this post. As someone who was emailing them over the summer, I never figured out how they could possibly be planning to tie fanfic into brain modelling -- the idea is so obviously specious that I couldn't take it seriously enough to dismiss it (which I probably should have done). I mean really, how is this science?!?

What has still got me reeling is the "What are they teaching them in these schools?" question, because I literally cannot imagine how you get from cognitive neuroscience and brain imaging to fanfic. But then, their approach to statistics also staggered mean with its stupidity -- seriously, they were tossing about data from an earlier poll they'd done on *OKCupid*. For real.

My personal "start raging now" phrase in this context is "hard-wired".

oh god, "hard-wired". I've heard that phrase so many times, both in real life and online, that my response to it is deadened. The problem is there *are* some things that are hardwired. But they are very, very basic and so few people know how to fairly parse real biological reality and culturally-induced biases that sometimes the only response is to just walk away.

I may try and get in to more detail about the modeling (what it really is vs. what they were trying to do) at a later point in time. I won't lie, I still have trouble wrapping my head around what they think they can use that survey data FOR. I have a few guesses, but they're hard to even keep in my head they're so baldly unscientific. Sigh.

I still have trouble wrapping my head around what they think they can use that survey data FOR

I think there are many people in many different fields who are all scratching their heads about that part. ;) We could do the whole "situating the appreciation" thing though, and start with the book deal needing something spectacular to be put between the covers. *g*

Something they can now build a model to predict goes along the lines of "when poking a large, interwoven group of women with a stick repeatedly and also flinging offensive things in their faces, it will take x amount of time before the shit-storm hits... a shit-storm that somehow involves their subcortical structures". Maybe that is what the Netporn book is actually about? It sure isn't science, anyway!

Thank you so much for this post. I shall now go and read the follow-up you posted. :) Neouroscience only recently began interesting me after I stumbled across Dr Ramachandran's work online... But it is truly fascinating!

Ogi Ogas was the first graduate student to receive money from the Department of Homeland Security, because he did his graduate work on data mining. So yeah, what could he use the survey data for?

Thank you! It's great to have someone who knows the specifics of cognitive neuroscience point out what's wrong with their project from the standards of the discipline itself.

Thanks! When I first thought about writing up a longish post, my original title was going to be "In Defense of Cognitive Neuroscience". Because it is a legitimate field, despite Ogi and Sai's valient attempts to make it otherwise.

Thank you so much for posting this. I don't have a strong science background (and certainly not one that encompasses neuroscience), so I was never able to really follow what the Drs Ogas were actually trying to prove with their "research." It's really helpful to have it laid out and debunked so clearly.

And I think you make an excellent and accurate comparison when you call them phrenologists.

Holy crap you have an Animalympics icon! And it's awesome!

Thank you! The phrenologist comparison literally hit me like a thunderbolt and when I realized how accurate it was I kind of wanted to bash my head against the wall. I'm a little sad Ogi didn't respond to the first time I called him a phrenologist; I thought he might, because among neuroscientists it's a pretty terrible thing to say about a person's research...the ultimate comparison to debunked quackery that the whole discipline would rather never have existed.

Thanks for this post! I'm a biologist, but human biology is outside my specialty, so I spotted the gross flaws in the project and knew they were overreaching, but I didn't recognize the more detailed levels of neurology fail you discuss here.

Thank you! I originally was going to let my anonymouse comments lie, but when he started mansplaining with technobabble I just couldn't take it anymore.

I am working on an fMRI study as a grad student, and I thank you for writing this pithy explanation of all that we don't yet know.

Thanks! I found fMRI incredibly frustrating when I was working with it, but it's still a pretty incredible technological advance from what came before. I wish you the best of luck with your research.

You have to admit that finding "something frustrating" can mean more than one thing. For instance, I was very frustrated when I was trying to learn to play the violin. Does that mean the violin is a flawed instrument? No, it means I'm not that talented with violins. At least elaborate.

Re: Could you elaborate?

I believe I did, in both this post and my other. fMRI lets us look inside the brain in ways that we never could before; but there are still strict and very limiting boundaries placed on research that uses fMRI because of the machine's built in limitations.

There is amazingly high-quality research done with fMRI with tight experimental designs and a high level of skill in the processing of the data. There is also an awful lot of junk research that gets published because fMRI is the current shiny toy in the field. In the end the quality of the conclusions depends on the knowledge and skill of the researchers, and not upon any one tool that they use.

Thank you very much for this informative (and scathing) criticism from a scientific perspective. I, for one, would be highly interested in learning more about the complexities of cognitive neuroscience and where those so-called 'researchers' exhibit a piss-poor understanding of their own field.

*gives you two thumbs up*

Thank you! If I have time I may write more about their modeling, how it works, and why the idea that vision modeling can be applied to social behavior is SO NOT TRUE, but I may have to bow to the realities of RL.

Models such as ART...

Could be applied to any phenomena, really. The problem is that computational vision people don't have a clue about social phenomena, what aspects are important about them, and how to even begin to study them.

Thank you for your beautiful exposition - and the comparison with phrenology absolutely hits the nail on the head (sorry!).

May I in return offer you a very useful concept?

The UK Armed Forces have the concept of "appreciating the situation". This means examining what is going on and, from the facts garnered, building up a picture of what is happening. Not a million miles from scientific method.

They have also developed a term for the converse, because it happens so often: "situating the appreciation". This is deciding what is happening and seeing only the facts that support it. The real danger in this is that it doesn't only entail looking for supporting facts - this is very clearly bad, and what these insults-to-the-term-"scientist" are doing, but can be more subtle: one only perceives the supporting facts - anything that might contradict the hypothesis simply does not get registered. It happens in science as well as the Armed Forces; the big difference is that it's less likely to get you killed when you do it in, say, geology (it was a major obstacle to the acceptance of what used to be called Continental Drift and is now Plate Tectonics).

Wow. Love the phrase! *glomps it*

Oh, I love that phrase. Thank you.

I would like to point everyone toward Genesis And Development Of A Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck. (Though I no longer recommend actually buying it off Amazon, but it's still the easiest place to link to to give people an overview of a book.) (Also pretend here that I included my rant about how Thomas Kuhn got famous by copying Fleck and is nowhere near as cool grr argh.)

Thank you for this, and your anonymouse comments to their claims in Shaggirl's LJ. I do some science studies as part of my own interdisciplinary research on human "values" and perceptions of the environment. The fMRI work is indeed fascinating in its potential, and a bit scary in how heavily it is, or has to be, manipulated.

I'm quite sure, as I keep explaining to students when teaching them about, say, gender and ethnic differences in attitudes toward nature, that there are *some* links from neural facts to cognitive processes, and thence to "values," ethics, and the like. But ooooh what a long chain of inferences and oh, so not pinned down yet. I think trying to pinpoint the locus or processes for something as vast, and culturally mediated, as "sexuality" (not to mention, sexuality in written form - an additional media transformation!) has got to be no more reducible to a few hypotheses and brain sites as the areas I touch on, where scholars like Lakoff & Johnson are trying to determine how human bodies and brain features might map onto specific environmental settings, phobias, and behaviors. That's not pinned down yet, either, and operationalizing it at the mid-range is a Bitch.

I hope you can get some time from RL to write more - this discussion will be open for quite some time, I think!

....fuck, I did it. New post. Insomnia is good for some things.

Well. If I were them, and did what they did, the modeling problem I would be testing would be how information is shared and distributed through a closed system (lj), w/reverb/response/amplification effect. Really, it seems like the only legitimate testing that could be derived....and if this is what they were testing, they couldn't come out & say it...otherwise, FAIL.

the sad thing is, it's taking us away from the lovely PORN

Thank you for this explanation. I hadn't paid any attention to neuroscience since I briefly considered it as a grad school choice back in the day, and so I was unfamiliar with "cognitive" neuroscience.

Also, thanks for the laugh! I had unfortunately just taken a sip of coffee, though, when I hit the link to your entry, and your subject line almost led to the ruination of my monitor :-). Phrenologists, indeed! heh

Thanks for the explanation. It's very useful in getting me from, "This doesn't sound right," to "This isn't right for these very specific reasons."

thanks for the informed and succinct take-down :)

Thank you. I now picture these guys as Dr. Venture, but without the minimal competence.

for higher-order (the highest order) interactions such as those defined by CULTURAL VALUES we use many, many areas of our fascinating and complicated brain. Not individual subcortical structures, but a detailed and right now ineffable interaction between subcortical structures and our cortex.

I accept of a process model of the universe, and therefore believe that the decisions are not the result of the interactions between subcortical structures and the cortex, but are the interactions themselves; that our beliefs aren't written in our brains like carvings in stone, but are recreated every time we need them. (I use "believe" because I have no actual evidence to point to, I just like the idea.)

Cutting edge research today has people finally being able to predict from imaging studies *what* a person is looking at rather than just the fact that they are looking at something.
This is cool. Both that we can do that now, and that that is the limit of what we can do now.

I love phrenology! It's just so delightfully ridiculous.

Thank you so much for this! I was wondering how good their 'science' was. I could tell their fan-knowledge was worth chickenshit but I know nothing about neuroscience except that it contains cool words like 'subcortical'. This is fascinating, even leaving aside the doctors Fail (I love that designation!).

Thank you. Their premise smelled bad to me from the get-go, but I imagined there might have been some kind of stab at a correlation between the survey answers and some physiological data already collected.

As the entire thing unraveled, though, I became more and more convinced they already had their datapoints set and were looking to back-fill with supportive evidence.

And while they certainly are not psychologists, they have blackened the eyes of many people who do serious, ethical social research.

I'm sad, though, that they will probably have the last laugh when their sensationalist book gets published.

Simply put, phrenology was the 'science' and 'studies' surrounding an old theory (most prominent in the 1800s and early 1900s) that the personality and abilities of a person could be determined by examining their skull, on the assumption that the skull reflected the qualities of the brain underneath it.

...

While it was still in vogue, phrenology was used to promote and confirm the racism and sexism present in that time period. What better way to confirm that white people were superior to everyone else than to measure their brains? What better way to confirm that women and inferior to men than to note that their heads are smaller?


Huh. I thought that phrenology was the studying of the bumps and hollows of an individual person's skull in order to do a personality analysis (sort of like astrology), and that the people who (for example) compared the average skull length/width ratios of different ethnicities/races were an entirely different group. Were the same people doing both, or is it just that there's one name for two different fields of pseudo-science?

I'm not sure how tight the use of the word 'phrenology' was during it's heyday; it's quite possible that you're right and the skull-measuring anthropologists weren't specifically called phrenologists in their time. The basic ideas underlying both concepts were the same, though, in attempting to related measurable outer features to the inner workings of the brain, and all those theories were eventually discredited entirely.

(Deleted comment)
In my comment above, I was specifically referring to (as the original commenter was), the 19th and 20th century anthropologists who conducted craniometric measurements under the assumption that they could compile racial data that reflected on ability and intelligence. These ideas have, in fact, been discredited.

There is a mild correlation between brain size and iq as it has traditionally been defined; the correlation is weaker if skull size rather than the brain itself is taken in a measure, and in no way strong enough to serve any kind of diagnostic use in an in-species comparison.

I'm banning you from my journal; this space is for discussion of Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam's inept fumbling attempts at researching fandom, and for discussions of research in and of fandom generally. You do not make yourself look intelligent by insulting me, and you add nothing of value to the conversation.

They are not phrenologists...

They are simply phonies. Do a pubmed search and you won't find a single peer-reviewed paper by these guys. Not only they are NOT cognitive neuroscientists, they would fail Research Methods 101 and so they are not even remotely scientists.

Re: They are not phrenologists...

Look at Google Scholar instead. Not impressive cites, but cites.

Only the first couple on each page are theirs.

I agree with the "let's not let them" but...

I disagree with the statement that they are phrenologists. Obviously they are not, since they are not looking at bumps on people's head. Metaphorically they aren't either, I think, because they did not try to correlate some physical trait to personality traits. What am I missing?
As I said above, they are phonies and having people like that go around saying they are cognitive neuroscientists is just bad for the field. So, jamming their little scam is fair game.

Re: I agree with the "let's not let them" but...

I compared them to phrenologists initially because they were indeed claiming that they could links physical traits/responses (neurotransmitter response, activation in various areas of the brain) to complex interactions like gender, sexuality, and arousal. I also used the word in the sense it is used in the phrase 'modern-day phrenologists', which is to say when someone (often a neuroscientist) is overreaching the scope of their research and making unverifiable and unsubstantiated claims.

Yay! I love it when people can talk about complex, specialized knowledge in an accessible way. I found this post and the follow-up essays a joy to read. :)

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http://en.rian.ru/world/20110327/163235937.html

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