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January 22, 2013 2:03 PM If I Can’t Understand It, It Must Be Right

By Daniel Luzer

This is the sort of thing that might be called meta-research.
From a 2008 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience:

March 2008, Vol. 20, No. 3, Pages 470-477
“The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations”
Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, and Jeremy R. Gray
Yale University

The paper indicates that:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) × 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

This appears interestingly consistent with this piece by Erik Voeten explaining that adding bullshit math to a paper makes its argument more compelling to people who don’t know much about math.

Sometimes, apparently, an argument looks more persuasive if you add some crap that seems complicated and intricate, even if it’s actually meaningless.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer