Who’s the moral monster here?

Even if you take the claims of transfer effects at face value, it’s unclear if the benefits are big enough to be worth the time and money spent on these products. For example, brain-training proponents note that ACTIVE volunteers who trained their brain speed were half as likely to experience a car crash. That sounds incredible, but based on the absolute figures from the study, Simons’ team calculated that someone who did the training could expect one fewer crash every 200 years.

Mahncke thinks the criticism is absurd. “[The authors] are moral monsters for making that argument, and you can quote me on that,” he says. “This is a public health [issue]. Senior driving is a problem, which is important at a population level. A person in health sciences who argued that we shouldn’t reduce heart attacks because heart attacks are rare would be rightfully drummed out of the profession.”

–Ed Yong, The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

Henry Mahncke is the CEO of Posit Science, one of the companies that makes brain-training games, which is subjected to critique in the scientific paper Yong reports on in his article. The peer-reviewed article does not say that we should stop using brain-training games because transferable cognitive improvement is rare. It says that transferable cognitive improvement, being rare, should not be over-promised to consumers. The conclusion states,

If a company claims scientific proof for the benefits of its products, it must adhere to best scientific practices. Exploratory scientific research is a necessary part of the discovery process, and such research might well lead to innovative and novel approaches to cognitive enhancement. We do not believe our recommendations stifle such discovery. For drug testing, the early phases of research allow for the discovery of promising therapies, but only after more rigorous testing can they be promoted as a treatment. The same is true for cognitive interventions and brain training; an initial discovery using weaker methods should not be translated to the marketplace until it has been evaluated with more rigorous testing.

I might add that people like Henry Mahncke, who are evidently prone to gross hyperbole when their own profit margins are on the line, are perhaps not the best analysts of scientific data. Let me further add that deliberately ignoring, misreading, or distorting solid scientific analysis when making claims about a product’s efficacy represents its own special kind of moral monstrosity. That this special kind of moral monstrosity frequently goes by the name capitalist self-interest will pass without further comment.


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