Science and the media: is impact especially bad for brain science?November 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: Information processing, Neuron, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, representation
I’m a science writer. I signed up long ago to the principles of open science, and I do my best to let people know about the magnificent achievements of modern neuroscience. Insofar as introverts can be evangelical, I’m spreading the good news about brain research. To do this, I and many others like me need publicity. We need the media.
And yet, I have a deep and growing fear that the current excited courtship between research, especially brain research, and the media may not necessarily be the good thing people seem to think it is.
This is not just the usual anxiety about requirements for ‘impact’ in funding applications, and the distorting effects of rewarding instantly popular research (see for instance this report from NHS Behind the Headlines). It’s more fundamental, and it’s particularly relevant to the sciences of the mind and brain.
It’s also quite tricky to articulate, so please, bear with me. Here goes.
We still understand rather little of what happens in human brains when they do something interesting. However, all the evidence suggests that brain cells (neurons and glia) are constantly altering their electrical, chemical and genetic activity in complex, and so far partially predictable ways, and that this flux of activity underlines everything we think of as ‘mental’: beliefs, desires, phobias, the lot.
<OK SO FAR – but two further claims are often made, and this is where things get problematic>
- Waves of changing activity can be detected, flowing through brain circuits of connected cells from regions which process inputs (like sounds or images) to regions which generate outputs (like movements or speech). <GETTING DICEY>
- Neuroscientists think this flow of changes in brain ‘signalling’ processes information about the brain’s environment (the world, the body, the person’s own past experience, other people) and converts it into motor commands. <YEOW, PROBLEM!>
You see the problem? In a word, it’s a word: ‘information’, and its slippery pal ‘processing’.
Is information the new aether?
What is this information of which we so casually speak? Like the luminiferous aether before it, it is everywhere and nowhere, explaining all yet unexplained itself. Is the brain doing information-processing? Show me where. The brain’s changing its activity in response to physical stimuli, sure. But what does calling that ‘information-processing’ add to the mix? I’m no physicist, so can somebody please explain?
I can see why information’s invaluable for impact. It’s hard to talk about neurons and oscillations and synapses all the time, and in my experience the mainstream media’s tolerance for such language is minuscule. They want soundbites, intelligibility, and above all, human interest. Minds, like new technologies and media headlines, are immediately and accessibly interesting. Brains, like the wizardry in computers or the complex processes which make the news, are not.
Information is the bridge. It allows us (and I’ve done it myself) to slip from the language of science into the more comfortable language of the mind. From ‘information-processing’, it’s a short step to talking about the kinds of information being processed: about meanings and values and all that psychological stuff. Hence you’ll see such headlines as, in an article from Science magazine, “Orbitofrontal Cortex Supports Behavior and Learning Using Inferred But Not Cached Values.”
The more I think about this statement, in a spiral of unknowing worthy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, the less I understand what it’s going on about. What are these values? Come to that, how can OFC be supportive, or otherwise?
Why is this a problem?
The psychological stuff may correlate with brain activity. But correlation is not invariable co-occurrence, unless and until you establish that the correlation coefficient between pattern of neural activity P and mental phenomenon M has the quantity 1.00 — and when that happens the first thing every scientist will say is, ‘Check your equipment!’
Moreover, as we all know, it takes careful and often invasive experiments to establish when correlation is causation.
And beyond that, it’s just incorrect! Neurons don’t assess values or take decisions, they change the electrical balance across their membranes depending on their current environment. That may not be all they do, there’s lots of chemistry and genetics as well, but there isn’t any intracellular organelle that ‘does’ meaning. Philosophers warn that we must be careful not to let dualism back in by the back door. Did we ever kick it out?
The pressure to increase impact, to talk to the media in their language, helps to blur these careful academic distinctions. That’s regrettable, because they’re not just pedantry, they matter — especially when they are used in neuroscience itself. They warp research, encouraging them to carve nature at joints which may not correspond to her physique (Mind Hacks has an amusing take on this). For anyone else, they make neuroscience seem far safer and more comfortable than it actually is, which leaves people misled and unprepared for what’s coming.
Neuroscience isn’t comfortable. It’s the greatest challenge yet posed by science to us; it makes the revelations of physics seem easy to swallow in comparison. As I discuss in The Brain Supremacy, that great challenge is becoming harder to ignore. If we’re to face it, we need to get our language right. And we also need to think hard about science, the media, and the links between them.
Having two different kinds of discourse, one for science and one for talking about it to other people, is problematic for many reasons — but it has advantages. Unless of course you’re using the same terms differently in both discourses, as in the physics concept of ‘mass’, or so many psychological concepts. To solve that problem, we could of course kick psychological concepts out of neuroscience (and indeed, there are many papers published where you’ll not see them), or at least allow them in only under strict linguistic control.
But then, even if that were possible, how would we make the science relevant and exciting to the media?
It’s a tough one. Especially for brain research.