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The Voodoo Strikes Back

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Apr 8, 2009 8:50 AMNov 5, 2019 12:19 AM


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Just when you thought it was safe to compute a correlatation between a behavioural measure and a cluster mean BOLD change...

The fMRI voodoo correlations controversy isn't over. Ed Vul and collegues have just responded to their critics in a new article (pdf). The critics appear to have scored at least one victory, however, since the original paper has now been renamed. So it's goodbye to "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience" - now it's "Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality and social cognition" by Vul et. al. 2009. Not quite as catchy, but then, that's the point...

Just in case you need reminding of the story so far: A couple of months ago, MIT grad student Ed Vul and co-authors released a pre-publication manuscript, then titled Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. This paper reviewed the findings of a number of fMRI studies which reported linear correlations between regional brain activity and some kind of measure of personality. Vul et. al. argued that many (but by no means all) of these correlations were in fact erroneous, with the reported correlations being much higher than the true ones. Vul et. al. alleged that the problem arose due to a flaw in the statistical analysis used, the "non-independence error". For my non-technical explanation of the issue, see my previous post, or go read the original paper (it really doesn't require much knowledge of statistics).

Vul's paper attracted a lot of praise and also a lot of criticism, both in the blogosphere and in the academic literature. Many complained that it was sensationalistic and anti-fMRI. Others embraced it for the same reasons. My view was that while the paper's style was certainly journalistic, and while many of those who praised the paper did so for the wrong reasons, the core argument was both valid and important. While not representing a radical challenge to social neuroscience or fMRI in general, Vul et. al. draws attention to a widespread and potentially serious technical issue with the analysis of fMRI data, one which all neuroscientists should be aware of.

That's still my opinion. Vul et. al.'s response to their critics is a clearly worded and convincing defense. Interestingly, their defense is in many ways just a clarificiation of the argument. This is appropriate, because I think the argument is pretty much just common sense once it is correctly understood. As far as I can see the only valid defence against it is to say that a particular paper did not in fact commit the error - while not disputing that the error itself is a problem. Vul et. al. say that to their knowledge no accused papers have turned out to be innocent - although I'm sure we haven't heard the last of that.

Vul et. al. also now make explicit something which wasn't very clear in their original paper, namely that the original paper made accusations of two completely seperate errors. One, the non-independence error, is common but probably less serious than the second, the "Forman error", which is pretty much fatal. Fortunately, so far, only two papers are known to have fallen prey to the Forman error - although there could be more. Go read the article for more details on what could be Vul's next bombshell...

EDWARD VUL, CHRISTINE HARRIS, PIOTR WINKIELMAN, AND, & HAROLD PASHLER (2009). Reply to comments on “Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition” Perspectives in Psychological Science

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