Training the Brain: Neuropolicy, Education, and Rhetoric

In the last twenty years, brain-based arguments have profoundly affected how education policy is formed. If you can support a policy with scientific evidence about the brain, it seems, you increase its chances of adoption. These arguments—which I am calling neuropolicy arguments, (following WHO)—rely upon neuroscience or psychology research as a warrant for a policy claim.

I will argue in Training the Brain that these arguments do not stem simply from overzealous popularizers but, often, from researchers themselves. While scientists often publicly assert their independence from politics, in the case of education policy neuroscientists, psychologists and other researchers participate in several ways. They may do so by 1) “seeding” policy considerations in their articles, 2) by serving as spokespeople in popular articles, 3) by popularizing their own work in books or articles, 4) by founding for-profit educational companies and convincing school districts to adopt them, and/or 5) by lobbying directly to influence education policy. In fact, brain researchers of all stripes have significantly impacted education policy, with little discussion about when and why it is appropriate for them to do so. Because those of us who are affected by those policies (student, teachers, and parents) are seldom brain researchers themselves, we are often called upon to trust such research and accept it as definitive, even when the policies promoted raise ethical or practical issues.

Rhetoric and Neuroscience

In collaboration with scholars at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, I conduct research into the rhetorical shapings of neuroscience findings.Team members include Gregory Appelbaum in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University,  Jim Moody in the Department of Sociology at Duke, Scott Huettel in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke, and Duke undergraduate student Elizabeth Beam. Our research examines how rhetoric and neuroscience intersect in contemporary discourse.

Current research projects examine the rhetorical effects of scientific abstracts in neuroscience publications. In “Mapping the Intrinsic Structure of Cognitive Neuroscience,” we are pursuing a quantitative (coding) assessment of the rhetorical language used in recent peer-reviewed neuroscience journals. In this work we make use of social networking analyses to investigate the relationship between theoretical, anatomical, and descriptive language in abstracts for social and cognitive neuroscience articles that use fMRI methods.

We have also won a Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Research Incubator Award for “Mapping the Semantic Structure of Neuroscience.” July 1, 2013-June 30, 2015. With Greg Appelbaum (Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University); Scott Huettel (Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University); Moody (Sociology, Duke University); Alex Rosenberg (Philosophy, Duke University); and Angela Zoss (Duke University Libraries). $25,000 award to develop and apply quantitative methods for synthesizing neuroscience literature. Role: Expert on discourse analysis and rhetoric; conceptualizing project methodology and interpretation of results.