Neuroscience and the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations: An exercise in headline-grabbing

in Opinion
February 24th, 2014

Recently, The Atlantic posted an article relating the growing field of neuroscience to international negotiations, specifically those surrounding the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Co-written by a neuroscientist and an expert in international relations, the article prompted a rather stern and testy response from Christian Jarrett, a science writer for Wired, yet he brings up some excellent points. Before continuing, I urge you to read The Atlantic‘s article here.

Although it may be well-intentioned, it appears that The Atlantic ‘s article is little more than an attempt to grab headlines and call more attention to the piece, riding the hype trains of two popular subjects. While it appears that applying concepts from neuroscience to news and international negotiations might be something that can contribute to our understanding, realistically it only serves to dilute the field. At best, it is a misguided attempt at connections between fields. At worst, it is another example of today’s journalism: lazy and prone to clickbait.

The field of neuroscience has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom, gaining more and more followers as increased technology has caused a dramatic upsurge in research and interested students. However, it’s important not to dilute the science. Even though articles such as those in The Atlantic make a sometimes dry field more accessible to readers, it is not possible to simplify neuroscience to such basic concepts. It is difficult to generalize the lessons learned from basic studies to something as complex as the Iranian nuclear negotiations, as the number of possible confounding factors is near-infinite. Rather than stating the lessons as true-isms, as in this article, it is best to approach them as potential hints at truth, or even just suggestions.

Ultimately, despite his harsh tone, Jarrett is right. Simplifying neuroscience to easily digestible tidbits such as those found in The Atlantic can only be harmful to the field as a whole, causing skepticism and a loss of respect among those who do not agree with such strong statements.

– Tom Meeus

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