Last week there was quite a lot of attention to an article published in PNAS by Aharoni et al. In their study they claimed that fMRI could be useful in predicting the likelihood of rearrest in a group of convicts up for parole:
"Identification of factors that predict recurrent antisocial behavior is integral to the social sciences, criminal justice procedures, and the effective treatment of high-risk individuals. Here we show that error-related brain activity elicited during performance of an inhibitory task prospectively predicted subsequent rearrest among adult offenders within 4 y of release (N = 96). The odds that an offender with relatively low anterior cingulate activity would be rearrested were approximately double that of an offender with high activity in this region, holding constant other observed risk factors. These results suggest a potential neurocognitive biomarker for persistent antisocial behavior."
The senior author, Kent Kiehl, was interviewed on National Public Radio on Friday morning. I heard it on my way into work. An NPR interview would suggest the media attention was widespread, although I haven't looked at this aspect specifically.
What I did notice, however, was that The Neurocritic came out with two quick posts (here and here) wherein he brought up a couple of interesting limitations of the study and even ran his own re-analysis of the data, the PNAS authors having been kind enough to make their data available publicly.
This afternoon, Russ Poldrack has followed up with his own analysis and interpretation of the study's data. I'll be honest, all the stats leaves me flat-footed. But I am very seriously impressed by the way the blogosphere, combined with shared data, has been able to poke and prod the original study's conclusions.
Why am I so enthused? Because the mainstream media (still) has the power to dominate the narrative in the public sphere, and it is especially important that specific criticisms can be leveled within the same news cycle, while the public might still be paying attention to the story. So, while I think it's highly unlikely that NPR will interview the senior author of the next study that finds there is no predictive use of fMRI for recidivism - we seem to have a serious positive results bias in science - maybe there's a slim chance that NPR will interview Russ about his follow-up analysis, just to balance the record. And if not, at least those in the field have the benefit of the post-publication peer review that blogs can offer.