• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 10th April, 2008

Nice enough idea – shame about the “brain buttons”

Today we give another shameless plug to UK columnist Ben Goldacre’s spirited campaign against Bad Science and in particular to his assault on Brain Gym “a set of perfectly good-fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudo-scientific explanatory framework”. Goldacre’s weekly Guardian newspaper feature first took a swing at Brain Gym in March 2006 [see: Brain Gym exercises do pupils no favours] when our hero “accidentally stumbled upon a vast empire of pseudo-science being peddled in hundreds of state schools up and down the country”.He caught it by the trouser-leg a second time two months ago [see: Banging your head repeatedly against the brick wall of teachers’ stupidity helps increase blood flow to your frontal lobes], with the result that Jeremy Paxman, a BBC2 interviewer famous across the UK for savaging slippery people, pitched in on April 3rd taunting Brain Gym creator Paul Dennison with some of the sillier of his claims about the workings of the mind and body [see: BBC Newsnight mine the Brain Gym comedy mountain].Goldacre’s war is on quackery and the irrational; Prevention Action’s concern is as much about the signs that UK education policy has wandered into the mire by making much of its confidence in proven models, effectiveness and outcomes, while allowing schools, which are supposed to be the focus of those lofty aspirations, to spend taxpayers’ cash on “Brain Buttons”. (More about that worrying paradox tomorrow.)Righteous indignation apart, there’s a sensible reluctance to be too hard on the kind of gee-up exercises Brain Gym and its parent Educational Kinesiology UK propose: after all, there’s nothing in good science to show that sitting in a classroom staring blankly at a whiteboard for hours on end is any better for children.What riles Ben Goldacre more is Brain Gym’s preposterous and possibly calculated misuse of scientific language and how willingly schools seem to have fallen for the sheen it gives to its marketing claims. “If you like scandals, then this is one,” he writes. The very same person who tells your child that blood is pumped around the lungs and then the body by the heart, is also telling them that when they do The Energizer exercise then ‘this back and forward movement of the head increases the circulation to the frontal lobe for greater comprehension and rational thinking’.Beyond the stupidity of some headteachers, how has Brain Gym survived, he asks. “Experiments reported in the March 2008 edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience show that people will buy into bogus explanations much more readily when they are dressed up with a few technical words from the world of neuroscience.” Why? “The very presence of neuroscience information might be seen as a surrogate marker of a good explanation, regardless of what is actually said. As the researchers say, ‘something about seeing neuroscience information may encourage people to believe they have received a scientific explanation when they have not.’“But any meaningless filler, not just scientific jargon, can change behavior: studies have found, for example, that people respond positively more often to requests with uninformative ‘placebo’ information in them: office warriors will be interested to hear that ‘Can I use the photocopier? I have to make some copies,’ is more successful than the simple ‘Can I use the photocopier?’.“And more than all this," Goldacre concludes, "the public - although not scientists - express a rather Victorian fetish for reductionist explanations about the world… The neurosciencey language in this new ‘bogus neuroscience explanations’ experiment - and in the Brain Gym literature - make us feel as if we have been given a physical explanation for a behavioral phenomenon (‘an exercise break in class is refreshing’): we have made the behavioral phenomena feel somehow connected to a larger explanatory system, the physical sciences, the world of certainty, graphs, and unambiguous data.”Wherein lies a warning to us all.

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