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Phineas Gage: The cheat goes on

I must move on to other stories about false knowledge infesting the sciences and social sciences, but realized that I should notice this comment to this post:

Bottom line is that even if the Gage story is wrong it does not show what is currently known about TBI. Whether Gage is true or not does not invalidate or falsify this, although O’Leary seems to imply this and I guess hopes it will stick.

I replied: Taylor, I am glad I came back one last time. You speak as a true Darwinist!!

It is clearly of NO consequence to you that the Phineas Gage story is probably false – as long as it fronts your agenda. You are not ashamed of the hundreds of false stories fronted about this man.

No, I did not think you would be.

Would you raise a single objection to the next imposition on students about Phineas Gage?

Trashing the good name of an honest man who coped surprising well with a catastrophic disability is a small price to pay for fronting the “truth”  that we are but naked apes.

I will make a post of this, I swear. And I am as good as my word. Ipsa dixit.

If you ever decide to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, and discourage the use of the Gage story in textbooks, I hope to be the first to give you publicity. Why not? But I have the feeling that I would be counting cobwebs interminably if I bothered to wait for that.

The last thing people like you care about is evidence.

Truth, falsehood, and nonsense all front materialism – and Darwinism – equally, right?

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21 Responses to Phineas Gage: The cheat goes on

  1. 1

    I’ve never seen Phineas Gage used to promote either materialism or Darwinism. I’ve seen the case used to promote brain localization, but that’s a different story. In what sense is this a story about Darwinism?

    You quoted part of a comment. But earlier in the comment, the commenter says:

    there is a well-established body of knowledge which shows a causal link between Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and behavioral and personality changes (and long-term at that).

    So, I have two questions:

    1. Do you have evidence connecting the Gage story to Darwinism? If not, I fail to see the point.

    2. Is JTaylor’s claim about TBI and behavioral/personality changes correct?

  2. Ms O’Leary

    You seem to have missed the point of what I was trying to say. Firstly, if you go back to my comment you will see that I admitted that there appears to be some mythology around the Gage case – and that if that is so it should be taught as such.

    But the main point was making is that even if the Gage account is completely wrong, there appears to be considerable evidence since than that provides a causal link from TBI injuries to behavioral/personality changes.

    My impression is that you seem to think that because Gage is invalidated that causal link is also invalidated. In fact, it is the evidence since the Gage case (which you don’t seem interested in reading) that tells us that even if the Gage case was misinterpreted some of the conclusions have in been subsequently confirmed. Perhaps the real solution here is to remove the Gage account from text books and replace them with more modern accounts, of which there appear to be plenty to choose from.

  3. O’Leary said “It is clearly of NO consequence to you that the Phineas Gage story is probably false – as long as it fronts your agenda. You are not ashamed of the hundreds of false stories fronted about this man.”

    Firstly, you know absolutely nothing about me, or what my position on evolution or ID is (especially since I only just started posting comments on this blog yesterday). Yet I’m already accused of believing all sorts of false stories. Is that any way to welcome a new interested inquirer to your web site?

  4. JT,

    I think the point you are missing is that if a textbook case is falsified the textbook is discredited.

    Granted the conclusion still might be true but if the best example is false it certainly calls it into question.

  5. tribune7 – I just said that it would be best to remove this from textbooks didn’t I? I agree if the story is incorrect, go ahead and remove it. But as you say the conclusion is still valid (although I’m not sure Ms O’Leary wants to admit that). And as I’ve said there are many contemporary examples that can be used instead.

  6. JTaylor, if you have the opportunity to review a textbook and the usual Gage legend is fronted, are you prepared to question it?

    That is all I want to know, really.

    What would you do, given what you know?

    Having been a textbook editor, I have sometimes despaired over the nonsense fronted, simply because no one (in a higher position than an editor, as I was) had the guts to say, “This is plain wrong!” or “This is misleading!”

    If you are the man to do that, great. Let me know, and I will certainly cover it.

    If not, fine. Please feel free to stay here and, within the mod rules, comment as you see fit. It is a free service and you are most welcome.

    I wasn’t trying to single you out in particular; I know nothing about you, except that you seemed little concerned with the fact that the Gage legend is just that – a legend – on the same level as Ghost Riders in the Sky – but not as entertaining.

    You, and others, want me to believe that other stories of personality change after brain damage are more convincing.

    That may very well be, but then why are they not in the textbooks, instead of this one?

    Arguing with me about the matter is of no value.

    The Gage legend should be dropped from all textbooks published 2010 on, and if it isn’t, well … I will know what to think, even if you and your friends don’t.

  7. But as you say the conclusion is still valid

    But I did not say that. What I said was the conclusion still might be true but if the best example is false it certainly calls it into question.

    Obviously, removing parts of someone’s brain will affect that person. There were over 9,000 lobotomies preformed in US in the 1930s & 1940s –another example, btw, of why it is bad to put total faith in the consensus– and these people did lose abilities and had drastic lifestyle changes. But did these operations make moral people immoral? No.

  8. on the same level as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” -

    Now, THAT is a lifestyle changing experience :-)

  9. O’Leary said “You, and others, want me to believe that other stories of personality change after brain damage are more convincing.

    That may very well be, but then why are they not in the textbooks, instead of this one?”

    That was the very thing I was advocating in my comment above.

    As tribune7 pointed out the real issue is the conclusion – is there a causal link of TBI to behavioral changes or not? Are you prepared to admit that or at least consider the contemporary evidence for it? Or do you prefer to jump down the throats of people you don’t know if they question your reasoning?

  10. JTaylor, I want what is false OUT of the textbooks.

    It is not a lot to ask.

    You may have something true to offer. I most certainly do not rule that out.

    In principle, it is conceivable that traumatic brain injury (TBI) can lead to personality change.

    However, I suspect it is overrated as a cause of personality change because most people probably react to traumatic events in the ways they have always reacted in the past. That is the most economical cognitive response, thus the most likely one in time of trouble.

    Many accounts of “personality change” sound to me like accounts of people coping poorly with disability _ as I myself would likely do.

    But we will see. Once the “Phineas Gage” nonsense is out of the textbooks, it may be replaced by more modern and more nuanced accounts of how people cope with traumatic brain injuries.

    If you are in the field, I hope you get a piece of the pioneer action!

    But first, let’s work together to get RID of the nonsense!

  11. 12

    The story of Galileo dropping weights of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is almost surely a legend, yet that doesn’t mean heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones.

  12. I had a friend in highschool that had a bad car accident and was in a coma for a week or so. Before the crash he was reserved, quiet and actually kind of boring. :). After a few months of recovery and physical/mental therapy he was converted into this Pauly Shore personality. It was a drastic personality change.

  13. “I want what is false OUT of the textbooks.”

    Denyse, if they did that about Darwin, we could close down the site. But we all know they won’t so UD lives on.

  14. I think the point you are missing is that if a textbook case is falsified the textbook is discredited.

    Otherwise reliable texts in science or maths commonly repeat myths about the history of the subject. It’s certainly not a good thing, but it’s not an strong sign that the core material is any dodgier than average.

    (Though admittedly historical errors in psych texts are probably worse than equivalent errors in, say, physics texts, because historical psychology experiments are more likely to be of current importance as scientific evidence.)

  15. Yes, anonym, and thanks!

    A claim that a poorly attested case is a good one – provided it upholds the theory – is bad news in any discipline that relies on concrete evidence.

    While working as a textbook editor, I have always tried to be alert to such instances – and glad to pitch them!

    If no nonsense slips through on my watch, I will consider that I am doing my job.

    I really must get on to the next story, but let me just restate the essential points:

    1. The documentary evidence of Gage’s life does not support the textbook legend. So if a textbook is being considered in your jurisdiction – and it fronts the legend – you should consider protesting. (I would resign a project, even in these tough times, rather than put it through the press if the author insists on fronting the Gage legend.)

    There is enough false knowledge in the world. Let’s not add to it. False knowledge drives out true knowledge.

    2. While personality change might occur as a result of catastrophic brain injury, it most likely will not (apart from early stage rages due to frustration when basic functions fail and one’s life feels out of control).

    a) Personality is formed as a result of many early – and pretty basic – factors, such as metabolism (essential or acquired), sex, birth order and parenting, and cultural, social, and religious patterns, etc. Changing all that is not easy.

    b) A severe insult to the brain due to a workplace accident is not a guided intervention aimed at changing anything – thus not equivalent to a lobotomy. (I will try to deal with lobotomy later.)

    c) In a crisis, most people fall back into the patterns by which they solved/tried to solve problems in the past. For better or worse.

    That outcome demands the least cognitive effort at a time when cognitive effort is especially costly (= a brain injury). So we should not expect random brain injuries to usually produce changes in the patient’s personality over the long term.

    To produce such changes, they must override essential factors I have listed above, creating the demand for a great deal of cognitive effort when the demand is least easily accommodated.

    Not to say brain injuries couldn’t do that, at least in theory. But we are right to be suspicious of vast “tornado in the junkyard produces Boeing 747″ claims in this area – as in any other.

  16. I agree that the Gage “legend” might just be a myth and should be removed from textbooks. However it does not rule out the TBI and personality-change link. That relationship is not based on one individual.

    I have some questions for Ms O’Leary though:

    a) Personality is formed as a result of many early – and pretty basic – factors, such as metabolism (essential or acquired), sex, birth order and parenting, and cultural, social, and religious patterns, etc. Changing all that is not easy.

    So do you believe that one’s personality is completely due to nurture/environment?
    Please do address the issue of lobotomies.
    If the mind/brain are not one and the same thing, why do drugs, which alter the brain, do the same to the mind (e.g. recreational drugs/alcohol/anti-depressants/anti-psychotics?

    Thank!

  17. 18

    Could somebody respond to the comment I posted [1], which was delayed by the decision of administrators to put me in moderation? What does this have to do with Darwinism or materialism? Has Gage been used to support either? Or has Gage been primarily used to support localization?

  18. Could somebody respond to the comment I posted [1]

    I will, it’s a dumb, purposeless comment.

    Read the About masthead:

    Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins….

    It’s amazing how many times I’ve had to quote the masthead (sometimes to Dave Scott) because we don’t always fight about what somebody comes here to fight about.

    Now, do you have anything relevant to say about Denyse’s piece?

    What did nailing up a communion wafer have to do with how Pandas got thumbs?

  19. I think the point you are missing is that if a textbook case is falsified the textbook is discredited.. . . Otherwise reliable texts in science or maths commonly repeat myths about the history of the subject. It’s certainly not a good thing, but it’s not an strong sign that the core material is any dodgier than average. (Though admittedly historical errors in psych texts are probably worse than equivalent errors in, say, physics texts, because historical psychology experiments are more likely to be of current importance as scientific evidence.)

    anonym, remember the issue here is “textbook case”. You are quite right in that a textbook can contain incorrect information and still be useful.

    However, if a case used to established a conclusion is found not to have occurred, or be greatly distorted, then throw the textbook out.

    It would be like a math textbook saying the rules of arithmetic can be bent because a grocer in Cleveland once added 5 apples to 2 oranges and came up with 8 pieces of fruit.

    It’s best to throw the book out.

  20. 21

    jjcassidy [19], I know what the site is about, thanks. That wasn’t my question. My question was: what does materialism have to do with Phineas Gage? I have read about Gage many times, and I’ve never seen the case cited to support materialism: rather, he’s cited to support localization. Even the text that Denyse calls, in her earlier post, “a typical modern materialist account” does not use Gage to make the case for materialism. So I ask again: what does this have to do with materialism? What evidence does Denyse have that Gage is an icon of materialism or Darwinism? He’s clearly an icon of localization — a concept that’s been confirmed (and complicated) many times over the years. But tha’ts a different thing.

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