Voodoo science in fMRI and voice analysis to detect deception: compare and contrast

Controversy and debate is the driver of scientific progress.  It forces us to re-examine our assumptions, scrutinise our methods and think hard about the meaning of data.  Of course, there is another way of dealing with controversy…

Voodoo science in fMRI

If you’re involved or simply interested in fMRI research you’ll already be well aware of the ongoing debate about Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience [pdf]. If not, you’ll find the detail in coverage all over the psych and neuroblogs by googling the title or simply “voodoo correlations”.

Here’s how it went:

1. Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, and Harold Pashler wrote a critique of a series of recent research studies exploring the neural correlates of various social psychological issues. Their paper was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal and will be published later this year.

2. Authors of those criticised research papers wrote careful defences of their work and pointed out problems in Vul et al’s arguments (here and here).

3. Vul et al. responded to the criticisms here.

And the debate continues – watching from the sidelines you get a sense of the passion and the intellect on both sides, with the process of open debate resulting in further clarification and some concessions (on both sides). Ultimately, this debate will result in better understanding of some important issues and better scrutiny of new research. Scientific progress, in other words.

Voodoo science in deception detection

Compare this to another recent controversy that started in the research literature (hat tip to Mind Hacks).

1. In 2007, the International Journal of Speech Language and the Law (a peer reviewed journal) published a critique by Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda of mechanical methods of deception detection that claim to use ‘voice stress analysis’ or ‘layered voice analysis’ to detect deception. It is more pointed and more personal than the Vul et al. critique (commenting on the companies and the individuals involved in developing and marketing such machines), but the authors nevertheless examine the scientific literature carefully and raise some significant problems with the technology as it is marketed.

2. One of the companies named, Nemesysco, threatened to sue.

3. The publishers of IJSLL withdrew the paper (though, this being the age of the internet, you can access it here).

Rather than publish the potentially ground-breaking scientific evidence underpinning their technique, respond to the criticisms or engage in debate, a company uses legal threats to silence criticism. The result is that we have no chance to hear both sides of the story, little chance of increasing our understanding of the techniques or their theoretical basis, further polarisation of the pro- and anti- camps, and bugger all scientific progress. Shame.

Of course, Nemesysco’s actions do mean that a lot more of us know and are talking about the criticism of their technology than had they let the journal article lie (no pun intended).

One thought on “Voodoo science in fMRI and voice analysis to detect deception: compare and contrast”

Leave a Reply