Science and the media: is impact especially bad for brain science?

November 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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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.

The problem

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.

I’m not the first person to argue along these lines (see for example the work of M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, and this 2007 article on neuroimaging). But the argument bears repeating.

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.



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  1. You write “… I do my best to let people know about the magnificent achievements of modern neuroscience”.” What is lacking in neuroscience, and you partly address the problem, is a well-structured analysis of what CANNOT be understood by present-day natural science, and why. One need not invoke monism/dualism to describe limits of natural science. Such considerations have been important in the history of philosophy.

    Consciousness can be described as subjective significances of neuronal processes, but this is not an explanation. The problem stems from the fact that arguments become circular as soon as one takes into consideration natural science (in particular, neuroscience and studies of behaviour) plus the phenomenal contents of consciousness.

    When viewing an apple I wish to relate a particular neuronal excitation pattern generated in my brain to the introspective phenomenon of a perceived apple. However, “A signifies B”, “A represents B”, “A is a model of B”, “A carries information about B” are no valid relationships of natural science. There may be separate sciences such as linguistics or informatics. These sciences ARE not a part of natural science although there may be correlations to phenomena encompassed by natural science.

    The circularity comes in because natural science can cope with neuronal processes and behaviour, and in the case of humans (to be correct, in principle I could only talk about MY consciousness) neuroscientific results may also be accompanied by introspective phenomenal contents of consciousness, such as the perception of an apple. However, the entire KNOWLEDGE of natural science is also a huge phenomenal contents of consciousness. This closes the circle: If the relationship between natural science and consciousness was altered, I would also understand a “present-day-natural-science” process in a different way.

    The foundation of physics is such that this circle is NOT closed: in quantum theory there is an act of “observation” but that act is NOT fully described in terms of physics.

    It is often argued that human speech helps to break that circle. However, within the framework of natural science speech is only structured airwaves that can in causal ways influence auditory neurones and can be produced by neuro-driven throat muscles. Scientifically, it signifies nothing, as above for the neurones. It connects neurones with other neurones in complex ways just as a neurotransmitter may do in simpler ways.

    I tend to believe that the problem is concentrated in the following statement: BRIEF neuronal processes ( = natural science) can signify a LONG-LASTING phenomenal contents in my consciousness. This is the basis for visually perceiving 16 hours a day a a holeless well-focused full visual field in which all entities appear simultaneously. MOST of the entities are perceived as identical for many minutes to hours (such as my office). The neurones cannot do that, as most people believe, neither in an identical way nor in a continuous way. They do it ONCE, briefly and sequentially.

    The link to the phenomenal contents of consciousness, in this example to perception, can be attempted to be DESCRIBED but not explained by natural science. The essential is that phenomenal contents are much more akin to a temporal INTEGRAL over neuronal processes, than directly to the neuronal processes themselves (at the same instant). This statement implies that the integral has been accumulated in the past (no one knows how far back; it may not only go back to birth but even to phylogeny where basic brain connectivity has been created), and those neuronal processes are no longer available for scientific examination. It is possible that the reason for the scientific inaccessibility of consciousness is ONLY the inaccessibility of neuronal processes having occurred in a remote past.

    Still, this is not a scientific explanation, i.e. one may not ask what the underlying mechanism is.

    What in my opinion is lacking in neuroscience is a DESCRIPTION of the detailed structure of phenomenal contents of consciousness (for instance, I perceive the book shelf in my office as identical for one hour. Then I fixate a small spot of dirt on one shelf which I did not perceive before. My neurones have to signal that detail. Yet, I continue to perceive the shelf as IDENTICAL, and phenomenally I experience that “the spot has been there before”. Obviously, neurones cannot “signal” that. Invoking “memory” is not helpful and has to be considered with care.

    To begin with, it would be useful if someone made such a description; there are lots of such details. Or does it exist somewhere? Work has to be done, instead of simply invoking dualism. So far, “modern neuroscience” is not so splendid.

    Jürgen Krüger, Freiburg.

    • Jürgen, many thanks for your absolutely fascinating comment. I hope you’ve said the same things to Ray Tallis, I’d be very interested to know what he replied.

      I’ll have to do some thinking about your complex argument, because it covers so much ground. But I agree that neuroscience is far from complete and that the issue I was taught (as a philosophy undergraduate) to call ‘qualia’ is a big obstacle.

      I would say, though, that the splendid potential of neuroscience is in a sense more pragmatic. It would be crude to say the attitude is ‘Who cares about qualia if we can figure out how to cure disease X?’, but neuroscience has much in common with medicine.

      First, quick thoughts: you comment, if I understand you aright, that neurons cannot ‘signal’ both change and continued identity, or rather the inference that an apparent change is actually part of a larger continuing identity. Of course, neuronal signalling is the froth of the brain’s function, not the longer-lasting structure — and in fact there seem to be multiple layers of ‘structure’, from the changes in synaptic proteins and vesicle numbers to the growth of new synapses. Perhaps the continuing identity could be subserved by one of these?

      As for your descriptive project, it makes me think of the extensive work done in the visual system (e.g. by Christof Koch and many others) looking at how different simple stimuli (lines, colours, etc) affect the brain … but I do see that’s not the same.

      Thanks for posting, it’s really thought-provoking!

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