Are too many neuroscientists are trying to popularize the state of their science? Jason Zevin thinks so:
At best, most of what is known is more complicated than I’m able to understand–much less explain to a general audience. And at least some of what I know about any topic in neuroscience is liable to have been discredited by a recent article in Science or Nature. This makes me cautious whenever anyone turns to me for an authoritative opinion on anything regarding the brain.
This is why it is always so disorienting to talk to people who have just read or are reading anything by Steven Pinker (such as his recent piece “The Moral Instinct” in the New York Times Magazine). Often, these people know all kinds of amazing things–including things I’m pretty sure aren’t true. This is not to say that Pinker is a charlatan (although some researchers might actually go this far; a colleague just vandalised my copy of “The Stuff of Thought”, changing it to “The Stuff I Just Thought Up”). The problem is that our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.
When arguments are made with the goal of convincing people who lack the expertise to evaluate them, they are bound to fall short of what it would take to move the field forward. What Pinker ends up representing is an unfortunate fact of life in disciplines where so little is known with any certainty: often the rewards for winning arguments are much greater than the rewards for being right.
I think this essay is provocative, but that it conflates together two separate arguments . The first argument is that it’s difficult (and perhaps reckless) to translate any science – like neuroscience – when the science is still mired in mystery. We don’t know much about the brain, so it’s not worthing letting the public in on our academic arguments. It’s better to hash out the disputes in the passive tense prose of peer-reviewed journals. We can inform the masses when the problem is definitively solved.
Needless to say, I think this is a terrible idea. It’s wonderful that neuroscience has popularizers who are able to translate the complexities of their science into digestible books. The public pays for much of this research – it deserves to understand what’s at stake. And while I clearly believe in the need for science journalists, I think there is also a need for people getting their updates straight from the source, even when it results in a distortion or simplification of the data. I believe such tradeoffs are necessary.
The second argument is that it’s dangerous for scientists to apply their tenuous science to non-scientific subjects. This criticism I’m slightly more receptive to, but I still think it’s a flawed idea. Steven Pinker, the scientist snarkily criticized for distorting the state of his science in the essay (the criticisms feel unfair to me, but I lack the expertise to know), has certainly been guilty of doing this. He’s written best-selling books like The Blank Slate, which uses a particular view of the brain to cudgel everyone from sentimental liberals to post-modernists who, in Pinker’s opinion, contradict this modern scientific data. Now I disagreed with much of The Blank Slate – I criticized Pinker’s naive dismissal of Virginia Woolf in my own book – but I’m still glad Pinker published it. I think we need more scientific public intellectuals, not less.
The problem, as I see it, is when we automatically grant ambiguous scientific data some sort of exalted epistemic authority. The arguments of Pinker are only a problem when we pretend that Pinker has solved the problem of The Blank Slate, that his shiny scientific arguments have somehow negated every previous argument. All the big questions of neuroscience have grand intellectual histories. The latest paper in Nature or Neuron doesn’t erase this history, it simply adds a new (and perhaps more accurate) layer. That’s why I don’t worry about scientists turning their hypotheses into best-sellers. Our societal debates could use a little more empiricism, even if that empiricism is bound to be imperfect.
I guess my point is simple: the mind is too important to not have scientists involved in the discussion.