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Overinterpretation of FMRI study trying to refute it

New methods, like PET and fMRI, open new avenues in investigation of the brain. However, there is a strong tendency to over-interpret the results. Below, is the history of my effort to refute such an overinterpretation.

It worth pointing what is shown below. It is not only that the original paper by Howard et al is garbage (irreproducible and based on nonsense assumptions). It is also that currently, there is no mechanism to filter out this kind of garbage. The reviewers of the paper let it pass, and the reviewers of my comments succeeded in blocking publishing them. Thus the peer review, which is the primary mechanism to ensure the quality of scientific publications, does not work in this field. The conclusion is simple: papers in this field (brain imaging for cognitive research) cannot be regarded as serious scientific publications.

Here are comments discussing the over-interpretation in one specific article (submitted to current biology 18Aug96). Due to the stupid way scientific articles are published currently, only the abstract of the target article is freely available.

Of course, challanging the interpretation fMRI and PET in the study of cognition takes away the ground under large industry, and will not pass easily. It was rejected with a ridiculous review, and here is my response to the 'review'. The deputy editor still refused to publish it, insisting that it has already been given "careful and serious considertation by an objective reviewer." I e-mailed about this to the the editor himself (11Oct96). At 17Oct96 I called the editor on the phone, and he more or less agreed with my response. He sent it to a second review.

The second 'review' is here, and in a cursory reading it may look reasonable. However, as my response shows, it is a nonsense like the first 'review'. However, the editor did not accept this, and is not ready to go any further. I told him it is offensive to reject my comments based on this review, and he said that is ok by him (20Dec96).

I am intending to send this case to several other people, to see if they can help getting these comments published, because I think they are quite important. If they are not made public and discussed, people will continue their nonsense interpretaions for another 10-15 years, before they will start to figure that something is wrong. In another 10-15 years, articles will start to appear that say:"Now [i.e. 10-15 years from now] we can see that these assumptions are wrong". The truth is, of course, that we can see they are wrong now, but you cannot publish it.

Meantime, the conclusuions from these kind of research will continue to mislead researchers in related areas (cognitive sciences, neurosciences), and will cause quite a large damage to our understanding of the working of the brain.

[29Dec96]: I sent this case to four of the editorial board of Current Biology:

and also to Sydney Brenner (Cambridge, UK).

22jan97 : Here is what Nature has to say. Not really interesting, what is amusing that the guy, after reading my message, still wants me to explain what I 'have discovered', and describes what I write as 'limited information'.

I also tried to see if I can publish this in other journals. [15Feb97] The only positive response is from Cerebral Cortex so I am now submitting it there. [24Mar97] The editor of Cerebral Cortex got cold feet, and rejected it without a review. Probaly reliazed suddenly that his own views cannot stand such criticism either.

Before I got the positive answer from 'Cerebral Cortex', I tried to publish my comments as an advertisement in Current Biology. They agree to publish it, but refused to include in it the following sentence: "I publish this as advertisemnet, because Current Biology rejected it based on two reviews. For more details, see".

[14Apr97] I now tried to contact national newspapers about this. The guy from daily telegraph does not have a web browser, so I sent him this message. He responded with a single sentence, saying that he does not want to in argument about acceptance of a paper. Times, guardian and the independent can browse, so I gave them this URL and they say they will look at it. They didn't, ofcourse.

Yehouda Harpaz