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Negative review of a dissenter in cognitive psychology

I comment here on John C. Marshall's book review of Uttal's book "The new phrenology: the limits of localized cognitive processes in the brain" ("Bumps on the brain", Nature, Vol 414, p. 151, 8 November 2001). The interesting point is how negative the review is, and how far John C. Marshall flouts the standards of writing in his efforts to bury Uttal as deep as possible.

I didn't actually read Uttal's book yet, so I cannot check whether all the reviewer's statements are correct. My comments are based on the review itself, and hence can be regarded as an excercise in critical reading. Large part of the discussion is about the language that the reviewer uses, and on the things that he does not say, because these are important factors in his writing.

The review appears in the "book reviews" section, which is intended for people that haven't read the book, and therefore needs to tell the reader about the contents of the book. For example, see the other reviews in the same section. The reviewer, however, has no intention to tell us what Uttal writes. While the review contains a relatively extensive exposition (for the length of the review) of the reviewer's position, it does not contain an outline of the book, a description of the development of ideas in it or an outline of Uttal's position. For example, the book is about "the limits", and the reviewer tells us about Uttal that "he contends that are so many "limits and constraints" on ...", but that is the last we hear about "limits". The reviewer does not tell us what are these limits according to Uttal, how Uttal try to support them, etc.

We are also told that "Sadly, Uttal does not engage with the details of this literature, despite acknowledging how clinical evidence supports the claim that complex cognitive processes such as speech and calculation "involve widely dispersed regions of the cerebral cortex."" What does "not engage with the details" means? Presumably Uttal does not ignore it completely (because the reviewer would have been happy to tell us that), so he does say something, but the reviewer does not give us any idea what.

The discussion of Uttal's theoretical position is more interesting. The reviewer refers to Uttal's book as "highly polemical tract", and quotes Uttal as claiming "a totally different conceptualization". Yet, when he actually mentions Uttal theoretical ideas, he tries to hide the differences between Uttal's ideas and the accepted dogma. In the only exposition of Uttal's ideas, he quotes Uttal as saying that his conceptualization:

"offers, in place of a specific function being precisely localized (that is, instantiated, represented or encoded) in a particular place, the idea of one centre contributing to the operation of a complex system of nodes and loci that are collectively responsible for the behaviour."
and then the reviewer says:

Well, yes: this is precisely what every behavioural neurologist and neurpsychologist has argued since (at least) Cal Wenickes's fractionation of the 'aphasic symptom complex' in 1874.

This is plain false, as is made clear by the fact that the reviewer spent the previous two paragraphs arguing for localization of function (more accurately, presenting it as an established fact). Therefore the first part of Uttal statement (the rejection localization) is clearly not what "every behavioural neurologist and neuropsychologist" has argued.

The reviewer statement gives the impression of plausibility because Uttal's statement is pretty confused: in the first part it is about function, and in the second part it is about behaviour. Since any behaviour requires many kinds of functions, neuropsychologists normally don't assume localization of behaviour, and therefore the second part is less controversial. However, even in this part the idea of one center is at least controversial.

Uttal's presumably contains a longer exposition of his ideas, in which he may have made his position clearer, but the reviewer is not trying to give us a clear picture of Uttal's ideas.He tries to dismiss them as uninteresting.

Instead of giving us a broad picture of what Uttal say, the reviewer repeatedly quotes Uttal out of context, and tries to give a negative impression based on them. The "not engage" quote above is an example, where the reviewer tries to imply that Uttal acknowledges a contradicting evidence to his position but ignores it. Similarly, the single quote from Uttal's theoretical ideas is given for the purpose of presenting Uttal's claim of "totally different conceptualization" as an unjustified claim.

Another point of the reviewer's review is his usage of paternalistic and derogatory language like:

"Yet one might have expected that anyone concerned with the psychobiological...."
"Sadly, Uttal does not..."
"Rather, he rushes down the sexier path..."
These pharses are also made personal by referring to Uttal himself rather than the book. The reviewer could have written, for example, "Sadly, the book does not contain...", but instead he used the personal version. When exposing his position, the reviewer uses positive terms like "careful", "detailed", "judiscious" to enhance the effect.

There is one exception to the reviewer's approach of not telling us what Uttal says, where he mentions the replicability of brain imaging: "Here he draws attention to failures of replication in which seemingly slight changes in experimental design, stimulus materials and task characteristics can lead to very different patterns of brain activation." It seems probable that the reviewer thought he has a good conter-argument in this case. The argument is based on the "lying by implication" technique: by stating that the failures of replication are caused by "slight changes", he strongly implies that without slight changes, replication does happen. The latter, of course, is false, and the problem that Uttal points to is that replication, at least until now, never happens.

The reviewer continues:"These are all genuine problems, but what needs to be debated here is the extent to which they reflect our failure to design good experiments rather than the brain's failure to instantiate distributed localization of function." This innocent-looking sentence is quite interesting:

  1. It refers to "problems" in plural (and "These are all" imply more than two), even though the reviewer told us only about one problem that Uttal mentions (the replication of imaging). This looks like a "pen slip", and tells us that there are more problems mentioned in Uttal's book that the reviewer didn't tell us about, even though he himself noticed them. The reviewer mentions another problem in the next sentence.
  2. The word "but" normally implies a contrast between the following statement and the previous one, but in this case there is no such contrast between them. It is therefore probable that the contrast is between the statement following the "but" and something that Uttal wrote, but we are not told what is it that Uttal wrote.
  3. The statement following the "but" is clear nonsense. If there are problems with replicability, then debating it is far from enough. What is needed is an effort by the people that do this research to ensure that their results are indeed replicable.
  4. The second alternative, i.e. when the brain does not "instantiate distributed localization" is presented as "the brain's failure", as if the brain is obliged to "instantiate distributed localization". This "obligation" probably arises in the reviewer's mind from the bain's "obligation" to comply with the reviewer's theoretical ideas.
  5. Since the reviewer clearly does not think that the brain "fails" to "instantiate distributed localization", it seems he believes that "we" (i.e. neuroimaging researchers) fail to design good experiments. It is an interesting question whether he really believes that, or just writes it here because he needs an alternative and that is the only one he can think of.
Two sentences later, the reviewer writes:"Again, however, this is a challenge to discover the range and limits of variation rather than a a cause for despair." Where did "despair" come from? It is presumably a reference to some of Uttal's positions, but we don't know what Uttal actually says (another example of derogatory term).

Next the reviewer gives us his position:

"A judicious conjunction of psychophysical experimentation, functional neuroimaging, and lesion studies will no doubt eventually elucidate the basic functional architecture of cognition. We can then start on the really difficult issue of showing how, not where, neuroanatomical and neurochemical structures and processes instantiate our best guesses about the organization of the mind."
First thing to note is that, as I wrote above, the review does not contain such an explicit exposition of Uttal's position on the subject. Secondly, because this exposition does not say anything about localization, it is not obvious that it contradicts Uttal's position. It is possible that Uttal wrote something which is incompatible with this position (maybe what the reviewer was referring to when he wrote "despair"), but we are not told.

Third, this exposition shows a "religious" belief rather than a scientific opinion. The reviewer is sure that we will show how "our best guesses" are "instantiated". He seems not to be aware that it is possible that "our best guesses" are wrong.

The last paragraphs is probably as negative as the reviewer thought he can decently be:

"Many of the problems of functional localization that Uttal outlines are real enough, but he offers no new ways of solving them and no convincing arguments that some other approach would resolve them."
First, we are reminded again that Uttal outlines many problems (which are "real enough"), even though the reviewer mentioned only two. Secondly, according to the title of the book, it is about the limits of localizations, and the reviewer doesn't tell us whether it gives a good discussion of these limits. Third, while Uttal's ideas may not be new, they are definitely different, even though the reviewer tries to hide this as discussed above.

So why is the reviewer so negative? He obviously strongly disagrees with Uttal, but that is not reason to flouts almost all of the standards of review writing. In principle, it can be because Uttal's book is really pseudo-scientific rather than scientific in its approach. Some readers (maybe most of them) may get this impression from the review, but the reviewer didn't actually gave us any reason to think so, and he didn't expose or even claim to observe any non-scientific reasoning in Uttal's book.

I can think of two reasons that may have caused the reviewer to react so negatively, not neccessarily exclusive:

  1. The ideas that Uttal express look dangurously close to be true, so the reviewer wants to make sure nobody reads it. That would seem quite unlikely position to be taken by a scientist, but not in my experience. As long as they can think they can get away with it, at least some scientists will block publication of opposing ideas if they find it difficult to argue with them.
  2. Some of the facts that Uttal mention are too embarrassing. Again seem unlikely for a scientist, but many of the facts in cognitive psychology are "embarrassing" (i.e. are incompatible with the current theories), and cognitive scientists are quite averse to discuss them publicly.

    A problem with this possibility is that the reviewer did mention one very embarrassing fact (lack of reproducibility). However, it is possible that this is because he thought his response is better than completely ignoring it, or maybe Nature have explicitly asked for a comment on this.

Another interesting question is whether the editors of Nature really think that this is a reasonable review, and if not why did they publish it.


Yehouda Harpaz