A lesson in falsifiability from mirror neurons and the language instinct theory


By Kris (with a "K") I just finished listening to a podcast called "What do Mirror Neurons Actually Do?" on the Brain Science Podcast. In the podcast, Dr. Campbell interviews Dr. Hickok who recently wrote a book called The Myth of Mirror Neurons. Aside from the fascinating content, one of the most interesting take-aways was the lesson Dr. Hickok learned when doing his research: Don't blindly trust popular opinion!

Of course popular thought is not always wrong—though my first Hebrew teacher did use to say "The majority was always wrong in the Old Testament"—but some/oftentimes it needs to be challenged. Dr. Hickok discovered this firsthand when he realized mirror neuron research had been using an invalidated framework from a different (but related) field of study.

He noted that the consensus view seemed, at first glance, the most plausible option for explaining the function of mirror neurons. But just as quick, he hastened to add that correlation does not equal causation; and that much of the older scholarship had simply posited something that seemed intuitive and ran with.

At the end of the podcast, Dr. Campbell brought up the point of falsifiability heralded by Karl Popper.

"A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified..."

Falsifiability is the ability of a theory—a working framework for explaining and predicting natural phenomena—to be disproved by an experiment or observation. The ability to evaluate theories against observations is essential to the scientific method, and as such, the falsifiability of theories is key to this and is the prime test for whether a proposition or theory can be described as scientific. Put simply, if a theory cannot be falsified, there is no point in even examining the evidence.

This is an excellent point, and one that Vyvyan Evans makes in his new book The Language Myth in connection to the language-as-instinct theory. I'm only a quarter of the way into it, but already Dr. Evans takes this popular theory to task, and deconstructs piece by piece central tenants espoused by Chomsky (and more recent/popular proponents, like Steven Pinker).

But if I can wrap up this post, I just wanted to note an overlapping theme between what Dr. Hickok and Dr. Evans have observed: Don't trust a theory just because it's widely accepted. Go back and review the original research and the resources they evaluated to make the conclusions that were made. Take nothing for granted. You might just find that what's passing as a well-formed theory is actually pseudoscience and unfalsifiable. With that, let me close with a quote from Wolfgang Pauli:

"It is not only not right, it is not even wrong!"

"Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!"