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Updated July 11, 2016. An earlier version was more apocalyptic.

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THIS IS HUGE. A large number of studies from the last 15 years of neuroscience research (via fMRI) could be INVALID!

A recent study in the journal PNAS looked at the three most commonly used software packages used with fMRI machines. Where they expected to find a normal familywise error rate of 5%, they found error rates up to 70%.

Here’s what the authors’ wrote:

“Using mass empirical analyses with task-free fMRI data, we have found that the parametric statistical methods used for group fMRI analysis with the packages SPM, FSL, and AFNI can produce FWE-corrected cluster P values that are erroneous, being spuriously low and inflating statistical significance. This calls into question the validity of countless published fMRI studies based on parametric clusterwise inference. It is important to stress that we have focused on inferences corrected for multiple comparisons in each group analysis, yet some 40% of a sample of 241 recent fMRI papers did not report correcting for multiple comparisons (26), meaning that many group results in the fMRI literature suffer even worse false-positive rates than found here (37).”

In a follow-up blog post, the authors estimated that up to 3,500 scientific studies may be affected, which is down from their initial published estimate of 40,000. The discrepancy results because only studies at the edge of statistical reliability are likely to have results that might be affected. For an easy-to-read review of their walk-back, Wired has a nice piece.

The authors also point out that there is more to worry about than those 3,500 studies. An additional 13,000 studies don’t use any statistical correction at all (so they’re not affected by the software glitch reported in the scientific paper). However, these 13,000 studies use an approach that “has familywise error rates well in excess of 50%.” (cited from the blog post)

Here’s what the authors say in their walk-back:

“So, are we saying 3,500 papers are “wrong”? It depends. Our results suggest CDT P=0.01 results have inflated P-values, but each study must be examined… if the effects are really strong, it likely doesn’t matter if the P-values are biased, and the scientific inference will remain unchanged. But if the effects are really weak, then the results might indeed be consistent with noise. And, what about those 13,000 papers with no correction, especially common in the earlier literature? No, they shouldn’t be discarded out of hand either, but a particularly jaded eye is needed for those works, especially when comparing them to new references with improved methodological standards.”

 

Some Perspective

Let’s take a deep breadth here. Science works slowly and we need to see what other experts have to say in the coming months.

The authors reported that there were about 40,000 published studies in the last 15 years that might be affected. Of this amount, only some of 3,500 + 13,000 = 16,500 are affected. That’s 41% of published articles with a potential to have invalid results.

But, of course, in the learning field, we don’t care about all these studies as most of them have very little to do with learning or memory. Indeed, a search of the whole history of PsycINFO (a social-science database) finds a total of 22,347 articles mentioning fMRI at all. Searching for articles that have a learning or memory aspect culls this number down to 7,056. This is a very rough accounting, but it does put the overall findings in some perspective.

As the authors warn, it’s not appropriate to dismiss the validity of all the research articles, even if they’re in one of the suspect groups of studies. Instead, when looking at the potentially-invalidate articles, each one has to be examined individually to know whether it has problems.

Despite these comforting caveats, the findings by the scientists have implications for many neuroscience research studies over the past 15 years (when the bulk of neuroscience research has been done).

On the other hand, there truly haven’t been many neuroscience findings that have much practical relevance to the learning field as of yet. See my review for a critique of overblown claims about neuroscience and learning. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, neuroscience’s potential to aid learning professionals probably rests in the future. So, being optimistic, maybe these statistical glitches will end up being a good thing. First, perhaps they’ll propel greater scrutiny to research methodologies, improving future neuroscience research. Second, perhaps they’ll put the brakes on the myth-creating industrial complex around neuroscience until we have better data to report and utilize.

Still, a dark cloud of low credibility may settle over the whole neuroscience field itself, hampering researchers from getting funding, and making future research results difficult for practitioners to embrace. Time will tell.

 

Popular Press Articles Citing the Original Article (Published Before the Walk-Backs).

Here are some articles from the scientific press pointing out the potential danger:

  • http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/07/algorithms-used-to-study-brain-activity-may-be-exaggerating-results/
  • http://cacm.acm.org/news/204439-a-bug-in-fmri-software-could-invalidate-15-years-of-brain-research/fulltext
  • http://www.wired.co.uk/article/fmri-bug-brain-scans-results
  • http://www.zmescience.com/medicine/brain-imageflaw-57869/

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Notes:

From Wikipedia (July 11, 2016): “In statistics, family-wise error rate (FWER) is the probability of making one or more false discoveries, or type I errors, among all the hypotheses when performing multiple hypotheses tests.”

Neuroscience and Learning

The Debunker Club, formed to fight myths and misconceptions in the learning field, is currently seeking public comment on the possibility that so-called neuroscience-based recommendations for learning and education are premature, untenable, or invalid.

 

Click here to comment or review the public comments made so far…

 

Click here to join The Debunker Club…

 

Great Article: Burnout and the Brain by Alexandra Michel, writing in The Observer, a publication of The Association for Psychological Science.

Article link is here.

Major Findings:

  • Stress may cause changes in the brain.
  • Stress may cause problems with:
    • attention
    • memory
    • creativity
    • problem-solving
    • working-memory problems in general

Will's Caveats:

  • Studies were mostly correlational, so not clear whether there is cause-and-effect relationship.

Defining Stress:

  • Stress is NOT caused just by working long hours. As the article says:

"a comprehensive report on psychosocial stress in the workplace published by the World Health Organization identified consistent evidence that 'high job demands, low control, and effort–reward imbalance are risk factors for mental and physical health problems.' Ultimately, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation."

Learning-and-Performance Ramifications

  • If we want our organization's employees to work at their best, we can't put them under long-periods of stress.
  • We need to give them more control of their work, reward them appropriately especially with recognition and status (not necessarily with money), promote periods of rest and relaxation, and give employees input into their job environment.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, and Development Molecular Biologist at University of Washington/ Seattle Pacific University, was today’s keynote speaker at PCMA’s Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

He did a great job in the keynote, well organized and with oodles of humor, but what struck me was that even though the guy is a real neuroscientist, he is very clear in stating the limitations of our understanding of the brain. Here are some direct quotes from his keynote, as I recorded them in my notes:

“I don’t think brain science has anything to say for business practice.”

“We still don’t really know how the brain works.”

“The state of our knowledge [of the brain] is childlike.”

“The human brain was not built to learn. It was built to survive.”

Very refreshing! Especially in an era where conference sessions, white papers, and trade-industry publications are oozing with brain science bromides, neuroscience snake oil, and unrepentant con artists who, in the interest of taking money from fools, corral the sheep of the learning profession into all manner of poor purchasing decisions.

The Debunker Club is working on a resource page to combat the learning myth, “Neuroscience (Brain Science) Trumps Other Sources of Knowledge about Learning,” and John Medina gives us more ammunition against the silliness.

In addition to John’s keynote, I enjoyed eating lunch with him. He’s a fascinating man, wicked knowledgeable about a range of topics, funny, and kind to all (as I found out as he developed a deep repartee with the guy who served our food). Thanks John for a great time at lunch!

One of the topics we talked about was the poor record researchers have in getting their wisdom shared with real citizens. John believes researchers, who often get research funding from taxpayer money, have a moral obligation to share what they’ve learned with the public.

I shared my belief that one of the problems is that there is no funding stream for research translators. The academy often frowns on professors who attempt to share their knowledge with lay audiences. Calls of “selling out” are rampant. You can read my full thoughts on the need for research translators at a blog post I wrote early this year.

Later in the day at the conference, John was interviewed in a session by Adrian Segar, an expert on conference and meeting design. Again, John shined as a deep and thoughtful thinker — and refreshingly, as I guy who is more than willing to admit when he doesn’t know and/or when the science is not clear.

To check out or buy the latest version of Brain Rules, click on the image below:

 

 

 

 

Mary V. Spiers, professor of psychology (and neuropsychologist) at one of my Alma Maters, Drexel University, has created a brilliant website to clarify the psychological science depicted in the movies.

You must check this out:

I love the review of Finding Nemo. Do you remember Dory, the amnesic sidekick? http://www.neuropsyfi.com/reviews/finding-nemo

For another movie I really enjoyed, Memento, the reviewers point out both the ways in which the movie is accurate in reporting on anterograde amnesia, and inaccurate. http://www.neuropsyfi.com/reviews/memento

The website also has a page devoted to brain science, with information you can actually trust — instead of some of the hyped stuff you might have seen from vendors in the learning field.