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Friday, July 06, 2007

Antonio Damasio takes a crowbar up his ego

As a lay and not academic psychologist, one of the ways to find out if your work makes sense or is just senseless is to simply ask similarly minded academics what they think of it. Since most view your query with the attention span of a housefly, or more succinctly, view you as a housefly, you want to keep your questions pithy, simple, and short. Generally, they will ignore you, unless your comments are on a topic close to their heart, and in particular if they helped invent that topic. So it was no surprise that when I sent my latest article on the concept of the somatic marker to its inventor, the neurologist Antonio Damasio responded.

Mezmer self portrait

So what was his breathless reply? It was not a specific dispute with my argument, my data, or even with my grammar, it was something far more serious and frightening, namely my bibliography! The following comment, which is priceless in its stunning inanity and vanity, gives yet another reason why I find psychologists are such wonderful candidates for mockery.

Below is Damasio's response to my paper, my rejoinder is in italics.

Damasio: Given that there are ample descriptions of the IGT provided by Dr. Bechara in his original 1994 paper (Cognition) and countless others, and provided by me (including the 1996 paper in the Royal Society Journal), it is odd that you select a description et al in 2002! Why take the description from an obviously biased source, even if it may be accurate, instead of the original?

Me: An accurate source is an accurate source. Accurate definitions in psychology are not apriori less so if they do not quote the primary source. Actually, I quote you verbatim in much of the paper. As to the bias, Tomb's experiment was short enough to appear as a letter to the editor in the Journal Nature Neuroscience. His so-called bias was in one short sentence at the end of the paper in which he denied the efficacy of the somatic marker in decision making. I do not concur with that, as my paper clearly posits that the somatic marker is efficacious, but only in terms of the goodness of moment to moment decisions. I use Tomb's work because he noted an independent variable, namely schedule variance, that was not controlled for in the IGT experiment. Indeed, my entire article pivots on that one crucial variable.

Damasio: On the same vein, the 1994 edition of Descartes' Error, is from Putnam, not Avon (that is a 1995 paperback). The current edition is Penguin Books, New York.

Me: The Avon edition is in my personal library, and I read the wrong copyright date. It has since been corrected.

Damasio: I have great difficulty reading through a paper when I encounter misrepresentations and tendentious framing of the issues. This is not, incidentally, a comment on the intellectual substance of your text. (the message ended here, as I am sure he felt I was properly swatted.)

Me: I sent you my article because I wanted you to find any misrepresentations before its prospective publication, something I am sure not many authors who criticize your work are wont to do. The problems you have found are on the whole trivial, particularly when many of my arguments and conclusions are highly provocative and new. But being provocative does not mean being biased and partisan, as your use of the word tendentious imputes. Indeed, many researchers on the somatic marker, such as Maia, Tomb, and most recently Dunn, are hardly prejudiced observers, and I doubt they would be published in respected journals if they made unwarranted and biased claims. Indeed, it is a greater mark of bias to ignore the concept of the somatic marker or to mindlessly accept it.
As a Popperian, I believe a theory to be worth its salt must be falsifiable, and if feelings are hurt in the attempt, too bad. That's not prejudice, that's science. That is what I attempt to do in a clear and distinct manner (I am a Spinozist by the way), with as little mis-representation of the data as possible. If bias is indeed there, then you refute it, and do not ignore it. That is the true mark of a true scientist.

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