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Why Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam Are Phrenologists
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'.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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*

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

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!).