Click bait PR in science

ScienceDaily reports on a recent paper (Leon Gmeindl, Yu-Chin Chiu, Michael S. Esterman, Adam S. Greenberg, Susan M. Courtney, Steven Yantis. Tracking the will to attend: Cortical activity indexes self-generated, voluntary shifts of attention. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 2016) which looks at the areas in the brain involved in volition. Here is the abstract:

The neural substrates of volition have long tantalized philosophers and scientists. Over the past few decades, researchers have employed increasingly sophisticated technology to investigate this issue, but many studies have been limited considerably by their reliance on intrusive experimental procedures (e.g., abrupt instructional cues), measures of brain activity contaminated by overt behavior, or introspective self-report techniques of questionable validity. Here, we used multivoxel pattern time-course analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data to index voluntary, covert perceptual acts—shifts of visuospatial attention—in the absence of instructional cues, overt behavioral indices, and self-report. We found that these self-generated, voluntary attention shifts were time-locked to activity in the medial superior parietal lobule, supporting the hypothesis that this brain region is engaged in voluntary attentional reconfiguration. Self-generated attention shifts were also time-locked to activity in the basal ganglia, a novel finding that motivates further research into the role of the basal ganglia in acts of volition. Remarkably, prior to self-generated shifts of attention, we observed early and selective increases in the activation of medial frontal (dorsal anterior cingulate) and lateral prefrontal (right middle frontal gyrus) cortex—activity that likely reflects processing related to the intention or preparation to reorient attention. These findings, which extend recent evidence on freely chosen motor movements, suggest that dorsal anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortices play key roles in both overt and covert acts of volition, and may constitute core components of a brain network underlying the will to attend.

I have not been able to read the original paper but I assume that it is a careful and useful study of how intentions and decisions happen when there is no compulsion involved. It has further evidence of the dorsal anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal areas being involved in preparation of voluntary action. I assume that the authors do not stoop to ‘click bait’ in the original paper; I assume they use the sort of language that they use in the abstract. The press release put out by Johns Hopkins University is the problem. There are repeated uses of the phrase ‘free will’ and even the phrase “volition, or free will” implying that these words are interchangeable. And ‘free will’ is even used in the title of the press release, which seems like clear click bait to me. There is still debate on whether free will exists and if it does what its mechanism is. Because of this many people would be interested in a scientific paper that deals with free will. Mentioning free will in the PR for the paper is click bait unless the paper actually deals with the subject. Instead the paper seems to be about how decisions prepared and executed. The problem is that the study did not involve any measure of if-when-how the intention or the act was felt in the subject’s consciousness. We do not know what the subjects thought.

There are a number of definitions of free will: in religion it is lack of predestination; in philosophy it is lack of material determination (classic dualism); in jurisprudence it is owning the responsibility for an action (not coerced, accidentally or unconsciously done but in involving conscious intent); in neuroscience it has come to mean a decision taken under conscious control (an action that is started or can be stopped by conscious intent) – very similar to the legal meaning. What the last three have in common is control of intent/execution by conscious thought. Volition is a word without any necessary connection to consciousness. Unless an experiment tracks conscious events as well as other events, it has nothing to say about free will. It can have a great deal to say about volition, decision, intention, motor control, action plans etc. etc. but without involving consciousness, it has absolutely nothing to say about free will. As I said above, I have not been able to read the original paper, but if as I suspect it does not measure or time conscious feelings of intent or execution then its PR is misleading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *