Neuroscience and Policy: Bait and Switch
By Bryan Caplan
I read John Bruer‘s The Myth of the First Three Years en route to Singapore. You might be expecting a rehash of The Nurture Assumption, but this book focuses specifically on attempts to use neuroscience to establish the existence of an early “critical period” in cognitive development. The punchline is basically what I would expect: Despite pompous talk about “the brain,” folks Hillary Clinton and Rob Reiner don’t know what they’re talking about. At least at the time of writing (the book appeared in 1999), credible links between brain science and child development had yet to be found:
[T]he more I read, the more puzzled I became. For the previous eighteen years, at three private foundations, I had been following research and awarding grants in education, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. All during that time, I was wondering when I would begin to see credible research that linked brain science with problems and issues in child development and education. I was puzzled because, despite what the headlines proclaimed and the articles stated, I had not yet seen any such research.
Of course, something may have changed in the last decade. I’ll email this post to Bruer and see what he says. But whatever happened on the scientific front, I am virtually certain Bruer won’t need to modify his observations about the political abuse of brain science:
I Am Your Child suggests that there is a connection between brain science and the parenting advice, but like Starting Points and the White House Conference, it is not all that clear or specific about what that connection is. There is talk about the brain, followed by some hand waving, followed by advice to parents.
And here’s a fascinating observation about the rhetoric of the brain. According to Bruer, the promoters of the I Am Your Child campaign…
recognized that brain development was of interest to both men and women. Talking about the brain’s “hard-wiring” and soldering synapses presented a mechanistic image that appealed to men, an image they could use to frame issues in early child development that previously had been of overwhelming concern only to women. A message that appealed to both genders, they recognized, would be very useful in advancing policy initiatives.
Of course, it’s useful only when the audience buys it. So the next time you hear a public figure pompously lecture you about the brain, ask yourself: “How much could this public figure possibly know about brain science? And even if he did, what are the odds that he’d give science priority over politics?”