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Strong inference in functional neuroimaging


Greig de Zubicaray, PhD, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia. Email:


A recurring question for cognitive science is whether functional neuroimaging data can provide evidence for or against psychological theories. As posed, the question reflects an adherence to a popular scientific method known as ‘strong inference’. The method entails constructing multiple hypotheses (Hs) and designing experiments so that alternative possible outcomes will refute at least one (i.e., ‘falsify’ it). In this article, after first delineating some well-documented limitations of strong inference, I provide examples of functional neuroimaging data being used to test Hs from rival modular information-processing models of spoken word production. ‘Strong inference’ for neuroimaging involves first establishing a systematic mapping of ‘processes to processors’ for a common modular architecture. Alternate Hs are then constructed from psychological theories that attribute the outcome of manipulating an experimental factor to two or more distinct processing stages within this architecture. Hs are then refutable by a finding of activity differentiated spatially and chronometrically by experimental condition. When employed in this manner, the data offered by functional neuroimaging may be more useful for adjudicating between accounts of processing loci than behavioural measures.