Thursday, August 28, 2008

The neuroscience of magic

What do magicians know about the brain? A lot, it turns out.

Our everyday experience of life is deeply colored by the way our brains work, quirks and all. Magic is a great example that brings this principle home. Two visual neuroscientists and a number of magicians, including Teller and James Randi, have collaborated to write a fun article about the neuroscience of magic. It's in the August issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience and is entitled "Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research." Also read coverage here and here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Stopping false beliefs - Four principles for journalists

In June, we wrote for the New York Times about how our brains lie to us, allowing the formation of false beliefs. Examples of false beliefs include rumors about Barack Obama's religion, or about John McCain fathering a mixed-race child. We didn't realize at the time just how relevant our topic would be in this year's mud-filled Presidential campaign.

Dan Froomkin asked us if brain science has any practical lessons for journalists in how to prevent false belief formation. The answer is yes. So we wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog. It says, among other things:
The human brain...does not save information permanently, as do computer drives and printed pages. Recent research suggests that every time the brain recalls a piece of information, it is "written" down again and often modified in the process. Along the way, the fact is gradually separated from its original context. For example, most people don't remember how they know that the capital of Massachusetts is Boston.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, leads people to forget over time where they heard a statement - and whether it is true. A statement that is initially not believed can gain credibility during the months that it takes to reprocess memories from short-term to longer-term storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications may gain strength.
And here's the corresponding lesson for journalists:
1. State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood. Repeating a false rumor can inadvertently make it stronger. In covering the controversy over a New Yorker cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama, many journalists repeated the charges against the candidate - often citing polling data on how many Americans believe them - before noting that the beliefs were false. Particularly damaging is the common practice of replaying parts of an ad before debunking its content.
To find out what the other three lessons are, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The science behind the book

Many readers have asked for the scientific literature behind our book. So we've put a list here [here's an alternate download site] containing nearly 250 references.

The references are just part of what will be in the paperback version, which will also contain new material. Watch for it next year!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How to evaluate marketing claims for medical treatments

We live in an age of celebrity spokespersons. In April I wrote about Jenny McCarthy's new status as an advocate for a fabled connection between vaccines and autism. That triggered a thoughtful email from Tim, who wrote:
You were kind in your description of Jenny McCarthy's credentials. She is very similar to my wife and me. We know what we have read, we know what we have seen happen to our family and in the life of our son - but for most of us that produces at best a great deal of passion. Not a great deal of factual knowledge. So our headlines seem full of people speaking on topics that I can't figure out why we are listening to them. 'Nuff said!

My question is this. How do scientists (and pharma in general) respond to the suspicion that many parents feel when we are told that this med or that med is safe and find out later it really wasn't. Point in case is the same issue of USA Today that your comments appeared. On the front page the headline reads: "Reports: Data on Vioxx misused; Documents suggest risk was downplayed."

How do we keep trusting big pharma, our governmental regulatory agencies and science when those headlines are more and more commonplace?

This was a great question. Here's my reply, which I hope is useful to our other readers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Friday, August 1, 2008

On Here & Now today

My interview for Here & Now on false beliefs will air today at 12:35PM, Eastern Time. The NPR stations that broadcast it are listed here. Near Princeton it will air on WHYY, 90.9 FM. Or listen online. Check it out!

Recent examples of false beliefs include the rash of rumors about Barack Obama, old rumors about John McCain, and the popular misconception that vaccination causes autism. False beliefs are everywhere...