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Voodoo Neuroscience Revisited

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jan 31, 2012 7:29 PMNov 5, 2019 12:14 AM


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Two years ago, neuroscientists were shaken by the appearance of a draft paper showing that half of the published work in a particular field had fallen prey to a major statistical error.

Originally called "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience", it ended up with the less snappy name of Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition. I prefer the old title.

The error in question is now known variously as the "circular analysis problem", "non-independence problem" or "double-dipping" although I still call it the "voodoo problem". In a nutshell it arises whenever you take a large set of data, search for data points which are statistically significantly different from some baseline (null hypothesis), and then go on to perform further statistics only on those significant data points.

The problem is that when you picked out the statistically significant observations, you selected the data points that were especially "good", so if you then do some more analyses only on those data, you are almost guaranteed to find something "good". To avoid this you need to make sure that your second analysis is truly independent of your first one.

Anyway, Vul and Pashler, the main authors of the original voodoo article, have just written a short piece in


offering some reflections on the paper and the aftermath. They don't make any major new arguments but it's a good read. Particularly fun is their explanation of what inspired them to look into the voodoo problem:

In early 2005 a speaker in our department reported that BOLD activity in a small region of the brain can account for the great majority of the variance in speed with which subjects walk out of the experiment several hours later (this ?nding was never published as far as we know). The implications of this result struck us as puzzling, to say the least: Are walking speeds really so reliable that most of their variability can be predicted? Does a focal cortical region determine walking speeds? Are walking speeds largely predetermined hours in advance? These implications all struck us as far-fetched...

But they reveal that it was one paper in particular that set them off voodoo-hunting

Our interest in probing the matter was further whetted by an episode occurring a short while later: Grill-Spector et al. (2006)reported that individual voxels in face selective regions have a variety of stable stimulus preferences; in a critical commentary,Baker et al. (2007)found that the analysis used to ascertain this fact implicitly built these conclusions into the method, such that the same analysis applied to noise data (voxels from the nasal cavity) revealed a similar variety of stable preferences. It occurred to us that a similar circularity might underlie the puzzlingly high correlations.

To their credit, Grill-Spector et al quickly accepted Baker et al's criticism and admitted that some of their original conclusions had been wrong.

Vul, E., and Pashler, H. (2012). Voodoo and circularity errors NeuroImage DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.01.027

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