I’ve written before about the sloppy philosophy that sometimes permeates scientific studies and leads to wild-sounding (and patently false) conclusions. In some respects, it’s laughable when this happens, but the problem is, it can be dangerous. Too often, these hasty and unwarranted conclusions gain acceptance, and people forget that these “facts” were really just loosely (i.e. poorly) stated to begin with.
Two days ago, NPR reported that scientific research has shown a link between morality and magnets. In the words of NPR’s Jon Hamilton, “scientists can adjust morality with a magnet.” And why does he say this? Because test subjects responded differently to stories involving seemingly immoral behavior when a certain region of their brains was subjected to a magnetic pulse, either during or just before they heard these stories. Having been subjected to the magnetic pulse, subjects were less likely to view a failed attempt at poisoning someone as an instance of morally egregious behavior. This is the data on which the conclusion that morality can be adjusted with magnets is based.
I hope it is already clear what the mistake is. Suppose we took a bunch of test subjects, stimulated their brains with a magnetic pulse, and discovered that their judgments of something like distance were affected. Suppose a normal person who is not subjected to the magnetic pulse can reliably gauge that a tree is located 10-15 feet from the window out of which that person is looking. When subjected to the magnetic pulse, imagine that test subjects consistently judge that the tree is located much further away—40 feet, say. Would it be correct to say that the distance between the tree and the window is affected by the magnets? That is, does the presence of the magnetic pulse cause the tree to be 40 feet away, rather than 10-15 feet away?
For all it’s worth, it is apparently the reporter who is phrasing the conclusions of the aforementioned scientific study in such a negligible way. Nothing suggests that the scientists themselves claim morality is (rather than moral judgments are) affected by magnets. But these kinds of error do happen among scientists themselves, as is very evident to those of us who study free will (see this book for a refutation of such uncareful but widely embraced scientific reasoning). Science is only as good as the philosophy that underwrites it. People forget that.