Alison Gopnik has written a thoroughly entertaining takedown of the mirror-neuron hype:
The myth of mirror neurons may not do much harm. Perhaps it’s even good for science that in the 21st century we turn to the brain, rather than gods and monsters, for our mythical images. Still, science and science writing are supposed to get us closer to the truth, while the myth of mirror neurons may do just the opposite. Instead of teaching us about how the mind works, it may perpetuate some broad misconceptions about neuroscience and what the study of the brain can tell us about human nature.
You should read her article for the details. Her skepticism rings true, although it’s always worthwhile trying to separate out the hype from the actual science. Mirror neurons might turn out to be good science that was badly “framed”.
But this article made me think of something else, too. Sciencebloggers spend a lot of time fretting about the anti-science views of creationists, alternative medicine peddlers, astrologists and other charlatans. But why isn’t there more informed criticism of science in the public sphere, like this Gopnik article? I’m talking about scientists taking the time to criticize each other in the language of laymen.
For most people, science exists as a set of disembodied facts. A new planet is discovered. A new gene is found. A new cell type mirrors movement. But this is a false picture of the scientific process. I wish the masses were exposed to more of the debate behind these droll headlines. Science is a human pursuit, and its knowledge is almost always contentious. Paradigm shifts are ugly social dramas.
For the most part, though, this drama is hidden away. Scientists like to have their fights in the passive tense of scientific journals, the anger hidden beneath the acronyms. But wouldn’t it be great (or at least entertaining) if more of the great scientific disputes of our time were hashed out in full view of the public? Think, for example, of the evolution wars of the 80’s and 90’s. Gould vs Dawkins. Spandrels vs. adaptionists. Wasn’t that fun? Shouldn’t we have more of that? I worry that science is so determined to appear scientific – and to protect itself against the worthless attacks of global warm skeptics, etc. – that it’s started washing its dirty laundry indoors. But I like the dirty laundry. Give me more.
As a science writer, I know that conflict is sexy. Maybe the secret to educating the public about science isn’t slick packaging or better PR or adroit framing but a renewed appreciation for the fascinating disagreements and human dramas behind the data. Maybe. What do you think?
PS. Carl Zimmer has a nice post on how science blogs might unlock this potential for scientific self-criticism.