Bryan Caplan  

Neuroscience and Policy: Bait and Switch

The Painted Veil: Best ... The Immortal Dilemma...
I read John Bruer's The Myth of the First Three Years en route to Singapore.  You might be expecting a rehash of The Nurture Assumption, but this book focuses specifically on attempts to use neuroscience to establish the existence of an early "critical period" in cognitive development.  The punchline is basically what I would expect: Despite pompous talk about "the brain," folks Hillary Clinton and Rob Reiner don't know what they're talking about.  At least at the time of writing (the book appeared in 1999), credible links between brain science and child development had yet to be found:
[T]he more I read, the more puzzled I became.  For the previous eighteen years, at three private foundations, I had been following research and awarding grants in education, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.  All during that time, I was wondering when I would begin to see credible research that linked brain science with problems and issues in child development and education.  I was puzzled because, despite what the headlines proclaimed and the articles stated, I had not yet seen any such research.
Of course, something may have changed in the last decade.  I'll email this post to Bruer and see what he says.  But whatever happened on the scientific front, I am virtually certain Bruer won't need to modify his observations about the political abuse of brain science:
I Am Your Child suggests that there is a connection between brain science and the parenting advice, but like Starting Points and the White House Conference, it is not all that clear or specific about what that connection is.  There is talk about the brain, followed by some hand waving, followed by advice to parents.
And here's a fascinating observation about the rhetoric of the brain.  According to Bruer, the promoters of the I Am Your Child campaign...
recognized that brain development was of interest to both men and women.  Talking about the brain's "hard-wiring" and soldering synapses presented a mechanistic image that appealed to men, an image they could use to frame issues in early child development that previously had been of overwhelming concern only to women.  A message that appealed to both genders, they recognized, would be very useful in advancing policy initiatives.
Of course, it's useful only when the audience buys it.  So the next time you hear a public figure pompously lecture you about the brain, ask yourself: "How much could this public figure possibly know about brain science?  And even if he did, what are the odds that he'd give science priority over politics?"

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
bblabla writes:

You guys want to comment on the newfound support for the uptick rule? It seems like the kind of thing that you would criticize.

mjh writes:

I suspect you could replace "the brain" and "brain science" with "anything" in the last paragraph, and it would still be good advice.

aaron writes:

Not quite on topic, I've been reading The Origin of Mind on and off. I bought a copy for my brother based just on the introduction.

Steve Sailer writes:

I'm a big believer not so much in the first three years, but the first three years plus nine months on the front end.

aaron writes:

The economist has an article on how intelligence manifests itself physically, in the case in sperm count. Via instapundit.

Waldo writes:

Neuroscience, by nature, is inexact and driven by assumption. It will naturally move ahead within reach of, but beyond the grasp of empirical evidence. Because the first 36 months is a formative, tender, and vulnerable time for the sensory system.

Dr. T writes:

The premise of the critical first three years is faultily based on two facts. 1. The neurologic finding that the brains of children younger than 4 years old can recover from damage much better than the brains of older children or adults. 2. Children under 4 years old who experience prolonged sensory deprivation become mentally and emotionally handicapped and can never fully recover. To be fair, there is a third fact that may relate to the claims: It is easier to learn languages you have heard from birth. Almost everything else in the field of preschool mental development is speculative rather than factual.

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