I have no patience for the Sarah Palins of the world who ridicule science they don't understand, but there's just no disputing that some of the research papers out there make one wonder how the authors could ever have justified their funding. Take, for instance, this report.
The brains of bullies—kids who start fights, tell lies, and break stuff with glee—may be wired to feel pleasure when watching others suffer pain, according to a new brain scanning study.
So far so good, albeit not exactly a revelation, but then we get the following:
The finding was unexpected, noted Benjamin Lahey, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study [...] The researchers had expected that the bullies would show no response when they witnessed pain in somebody else—that they experience a sort of emotional coldness that allows them to steal milk money with no remorse, for example.
The statements above are quite simply ridiculous: the difference between a sociopath who steals and cheats without remorse and the bully who gets his or her kicks from brutalizing or humiliating others is one which any reasonably mature individual should be able to make with ease, and even a 10-year would know that the typical bully engages in bullying as an end in itself, rather than merely in order to obtain material rewards. These researchers are merely dressing up the bleedin' obvious as something new and shocking, as ought to be clear from the following passage:
the bullies' empathetic response seemed to be warped by activity in the amygdala and ventral striatum, regions of the brain sometimes associated with reward and pleasure. "We think it means that they like seeing people in pain," Lahey said. "If that is true," he added, "they are getting positively reinforced every time they bully and are aggressive to other people."
Who would ever have guessed!
The truly pathetic thing here is that one can see the germ of a truly interesting research project lying hidden underneath this attempt to palm off trivialities as profound new insights. It would be worthwhile to try to ascertain whether a tendency to bullying is something which springs from existing abnormalities in brain functioning, or whether the abnormalities seen in this study are simply the end result of thinking and acting like a bully over many years; also interesting would be to investigate whether any therapies for bullying also managed to alter the underlying brain activity of those receiving treatment. Somehow I doubt either of these two researchers will be the ones to carry out such studies, however: in the "publish or perish" atmosphere in which papers of low marginal value such as this one are puffed up in glorified press releases, the time horizons required to do serious work along the lines I suggest are simply too long to serve the main purpose in mind, which is typically to get tenure.
PS: The worst thing of all about this study, and which I entirely forgot to mention, is that the entire sample size is so small as to be nearly meaningless - just eight teenagers, all of them male, and all in the narrow age range of 16-18. Given the small sample and its highly skewed demographic composition, it isn't even clear that what these two researchers have observed is a real, generalizable phenomenon ...