Here's a question that is bound to be controversial but is not intended as such.

Do we really know anything at all about the brain? Is neurology really a science?

I'm an epileptic patient and have had three brain surgeries. Fortunately, these were successful and I no longer have seizures. But throughout my tenure(s) in the hospital(s) and during all of my testing/etc, I heard the same story: We know little about the brain, neurology is an inexact science. In fact, this book by Katrina Firlik:

book cover

says that brain surgery is just a matter of "open the head, stir it up, hope all goes well." Not like the heart- you have a blocked artery? We'll do a bypass and as long as there are no complications, you'll be up and about.

I know about the tests that we have. I've had all of them performed on me many times. fMRI, MRI, CAT scans, PET scans, and, most importantly, EEGs. But, we see the electrical impulses and have no idea what they mean. For example, at one point I had three separate neurologists reading the same EEG, one telling me my seizures are in the frontal lobe, the second telling me they are in the left temporal lobe, and the third telling me they are in the right temporal lobe. MRI readings are better, but not really by much in my experience.

And then there is the matter of the medicine that is prescribed. I always hear, when I am put on a new medicine, "I hope this works, it might not." I have other medical problems in addition to my neurological problems and I don't hear this from any other doctor. And nobody agrees on the correct medicine or dosage. It's not like a dermatologist- this regimen for this type of acne.

So, I guess that my experiences have convinced me that neurology is a matter of guess, check, and wishful thinking. I have been lucky that it has worked but I have met many other people who have not been so lucky.

Is neurology a science? Do I have legitimate reason to doubt?

  • thanks for adding neurology tag Borror. I didn't have enough rep to add it myself.
    – user906
    Mar 24, 2011 at 3:38
  • 1
    One of the, if not the, most common mistakes about science is that for something to be right/useful it has to be science and vice versa. It is science because it follows the methodology of science. However that does not make it infallible, always, or even mostly right. Science is just the best way we currently have to learn about the world around us. Some fields, like this one, are rightly held back from more rapid development by the societal limitations on human testing. Yes neurology is a science.
    – jjj
    Mar 24, 2011 at 4:59
  • “MRI readings are better, but not really by much” – well, MRIs are qualitatively completely different. EEGs measure electrical signals on the surface of the skull. MRIs give a locally and temporally resolved picture of the activity in the brain. They are as dissimilar as, say, smell and sight as means of orientation. Mar 24, 2011 at 9:06
  • @Konrad -- I think by "better" he means in their ability to diagnose his particular problems. Mar 24, 2011 at 13:46
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    brain surgery is just a matter of "open the head, stir it up, hope all goes well. This is a very good example of what Richard Dawkins calls bad scientific poetry.
    – nico
    Apr 28, 2012 at 12:06

3 Answers 3


"Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience"-paper argues that a lot of the peer reviewed neuroscience research is build on flawed methodologies. They use statistical tools that are overconfident and don't test the theories on new data. They are guilty of what Feynman identified in rat psychology research as cargo cult science.

Top scientists like Marc Hauser have a good chance to survive controversy about having faked a lot of data. Accusing a colleague of faking data can damage your career and as a result some scientists don't speak out about it. In that climate we don't know how many fraudsters simply don't get caught.

Most of the scientific minded public thinks that the discovery of mirror neurons was a big breakthrough of neuroscience. They are a potent meme because they provide people who want to argue a reductionist worldview with an argument. On the other hand those people who argue the other side usually don't know enough to challenge the argument.

The idea of mirror neurons is poorly defined. There are people who even argue that there is no real evidence for human mirror neurons.

Dr. Lakhan who is the executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation published an article about the mirror neuron question on his website that makes the call:

In order to avoid this “rather awkward position,” the scientific community must make concerted efforts to educate the public about neuroscience, and science journalists as well as the layperson would do well to approach coverage of studies in neuroscience with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Unfortunately a lot of self professed skeptics don't really practice skepticism but would be better characterized as defenders of a reductionist world view. They need the mirror neuron argument to win debates. They have no interest into questioning modern neurobabble.

I don't want to completely invalidate the quest to understand the human brain. We have however still a long way to go.

  • 6
    Neurology is a science, but unfortunately, it's a relatively new science. It's only within the last 60 years or so that we have had the tools to investigate the way that the brain works, and the brain is likely the most complicated organ in the body. If I may quote Young Frankenstein, "Hearts and kidneys are tinkertoys!" They are relatively simple, and have been studied for centuries. Neuroscience is unfortunately still in it's early childhood if not infancy.
    – Ustice
    Mar 24, 2011 at 14:33
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    The cargo cult science accusation is correct but it is not partial to neuroscience. Other disciplins also practice it, and I would even say that they do so equally strongly. Neuroscience is not special in that regard. There is a strong argument that most published results are downright false and rely on flawed methodology. For an example in bioinformatics, consider the blatant misuse of statistics. Mar 25, 2011 at 10:37
  • Most of the scientific minded public thinks that the discovery of mirror neurons was a big breakthrough of neuroscience. Really? I think there are much more interesting examples to make and the general public generally does not even know that mirror neurons exist. Neuroscience is a huge domain covering lots and lots of things. The great majority of neuroscientists will never in their life have anything to do with mirror neurons.
    – nico
    Apr 28, 2012 at 11:59
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    On the same note saying that social neurosciences = neurosciences is a huge misstatement
    – nico
    Apr 28, 2012 at 12:02
  • +1, a great many "skeptics" and "scientific minded" people tend to make assertions that are essentially Argument From Personal Astonishment (I can't believe that, regardless that you have citations, so it cant be true), or Appeal To Widespread Belief, or Appeal To Common Sense (Which is a stealth Appeal to Anonymous Authority), overt Appeal to Anonymous Authority (The scientific community). Tolerating this is dangerous. If I could give another +1 for giving me hope that this site might not be rampant with that sort of thing, I would. I'm not getting my hopes too far up, yet, however. :P
    – user6936
    Apr 29, 2012 at 16:19

It's not like a dermatologist- this regimen for this type of acne.

Don’t ever make the mistake of over-estimating dermatologists. ;-) And in fact, acne is a very bad example because treating it is a bit like voodoo. The last resort cure for acne (isotretinoin) is an extremely potent toxin that kills cells left, right and center. And hopefully it eradicates acne in the process. It often has side-effects (some quite severe) and leads to a very high chance of birth defects when given to a pregnant woman.

And finally, it doesn’t always work.

There is nothing sophisticated about that drug and it can only be taken because most its side-effects concern the skin, which regrowths rather easily. But it should be obvious why similar medication isn’t used on the brain. ;-)

The brain as an organ is much more complex and requires much more sophisticated treatment, lest it be permanently damaged. That doesn’t mean that neurology isn’t a science – it just means that it needs to be much more sophisticated.

  • +1 for the acne comment, that was my thought too on reading the question :)
    – Benjol
    Apr 30, 2012 at 12:18

Neurology is a medical discipline engaged in diagnostics and clinical applications. The practice of neurology can be separated from the scientific study of the brain, which aims for an increased understanding without necessarily any clinical application in mind. The techniques are often the same, but neuroscientific reports rarely involve individual cases (except e.g. neuropsychological case studies). The way conclusions are drawn in the practice of neurology and the neurosciences differ.


So by refuting social neuroscience, the whole of neuroscience is refuted?

There is still cognitive and affective neuroscience if you consider domains, and basic neuroscience if you consider levels of explanation.

Vul himself, whom you cite in the secondary literature, engages in social neuroscience.

This suggests that the neurosciences are self-critical at worst.

Speaking from personal experience, mirror neurons are controversial within the field. Some researchers have at times been willing to draw the conclusions of research on mirror neurons too far. For example, Iacoboni suggested that mirror neurons solve the problem of other minds. It is no wonder, then, why many neuroscientists remain skeptic.

  • Up vote to you for explicit mention of neurology. Neurology is not a pseudo-science, whereas social neuroscience often devolves into pop psychology. Neurology is a legitimate medical specialty. A good example is in the treatment of seizure disorders. Neurologists are who you go to for that. Other M.D.'s don't even try to treat it, they refer you to a neurologist. And thankfully, neurologists are often able to prescribe a combination of medical and lifestyle changes such that seizures are minimized or suppressed entirely. May 13, 2012 at 18:04

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