“Neuroscience and the public sphere”

A recent article in Neuron, with the title above, addresses a very important phenomenon: Investigations in neuroscience get absorbed into contexts that are ‘symbolically layered and socially loaded‘. As the article says:

Since the “Decade of the Brain,” the field of neuroscience has expanded dramatically, tackling increasingly complex topics with profound social and policy implications … Neuroscience is now firmly rooted as a basic reference point within the public sphere, drawn into discussion of diverse issues such as antisocial behavior, economic decisions, substance abuse, and education.

However, scientific information is rarely transplanted intact into the public domain. As science penetrates the public sphere, it enters a dense network of cultural meanings and worldviews and is understood through the prism they provide. The cultural context determines which aspects of science travel into public consciousness: knowledge that resonates with prevailing social concerns is selectively “taken up” in public dialogue. For example, the “Mozart effect”—the empirically unsubstantiated idea that classical music enhances children’s intelligence … Furthermore, scientific information acquires new meanings as cultural preconceptions are projected onto it. For instance, Green and Clémence, 2008 demonstrate how over the course of public communication, a study linking vasopressin to affiliative behavior in voles (Young et al., 1999) was reconstituted as a discovery of the “faithfulness gene.” These lay ideas (or “social representations”) of science can have tangible societal consequences.

The article contains an extremely helpful bibliography for anyone wanting to look at the issues in this domain; it appears fairly innocent of feminist analysis, unfortunately. We have in a number of posts discussed some of the work by Cordelia Fine, who works in this area.

4 thoughts on ““Neuroscience and the public sphere”

  1. I should add that the volume Neurofeminism contains a considerable amount of feminist analysis of neuroscience. Some of it’s authors have their own highly praised works.

  2. The NSTF awarded the prize to Limson for her development of the online science magazine, Science in Africa. She is currently actively engaged in research in the neuroscience research group at Rhodes University. Science in Africa represents an important part of her commitment to both showcasing African science to Africa and the rest of the globe and towards improving the public understanding of science. Science in Africa has been running for a year and a half and is a monthly online magazine which showcases scientific achievements and progress from Africa in an understandable way to the general public. The magazine has received over 1, 3 million hits and is widely read in over 70 countries.

  3. The neurological basis for any difference between males and females is unclear, obviously. We do not really know the neurological basis for thinking generally, but clearly there is a distinct physical difference between genders and the issue is whether the brain represents the body or introduces rules that only apply universally (notwithstanding the fundamental physical difference). I would tend to say there are male and female modes of thinking related to physical differences, as a guess.

Comments are closed.