The Frontal Cortex

Popularizing Science

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.
[snip]
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.

Comments

  1. #1 Paradigm
    January 25, 2008

    I thought The Blank Slate did a pretty good job on dismissing the until recently popular notion that human nature is almost completely malleable. He didn’t do this using his “particular view of the brain” as much as by refering to behavioral genetics and its massive twin and adoption studies.

  2. #2 Jillian
    January 25, 2008

    Jonah, I appreciate your comments. I am no neuroscientist–just a background screener with a lowly BA in PoliSci–but I can’t seem to get my hands on enough science books (and blogs!) written for mainstream audiences. I know enough about science and history to know that whatever bestseller I am reading today is not going to close the book on the subject, but I really appreciate the fact that this stuff is so accessible. So thank you, and keep writing!

  3. #3 swivelchair
    January 25, 2008

    Hello Jonah —

    I totally agree — I don’t have any opinion about Dr. Pinker, beyond perhaps wondering who his PR agency is, but at least he’s “branding” himself as the public face for neuroscience. There may be other/better/different neuroscientists, and rather than saying Dr. Pinker should go back to the lab, let’s have more come out into the public eye.

    Not to complain (although obviously this is a complaint, sorry), the scientific journals are so jargon-bound that it is tough to even have scientists from one field read the literature in another field. Even the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has rules about using plain English instead of the lawyer mumbo jumbo that no one — least of all the public markets — can understand. It’s not that tough for science journal copy editors to use regular words or links to a glossary. No need to sacrifice accuracy. I wonder why they don’t?

    So I vote more popular press, blogs, and interested public commentary, even at the expense of total accuracy. If anything, it may provoke the scientific establishment to be more accessable to the lay public.

  4. #4 Joseph Urban
    January 25, 2008

    I’d like to make a couple of general comments about this topic.

    Firstly, I believe it’s unfortunate to term writers’ works, such as those of Pinker, Ball, Wade, Zimmer, etc… and your own recent publication, for example, as popularizations. They are more renderings into English of science speak, which scientists employ, when writing for their peers, the specialists in their respective fields, who will review and critique their work. And respond, in turn, again in science speak.

    Frankly, it seems to me, some of the best interpretive science writings have been opening up so many worlds that few had ever suspected existed and they in themselves should be valued and prized for that. To call these efforts popularizations seems to diminish their stature and significance. ( I would include among these sorts of efforts the many wonderful books of recent years on mathematic topics as well. )

    Now, as to interpretations. Any work in any field creates an interpretive skein in its presentations. That, obviously, cannot be otherwise. One judges the works’ merits on how well and proportionately the whorls and coils of its constructions mesh with the thoughts and works of others. Or do not as the case may be. This is for reviewers, commentators and readers to thrash out. And, usually the writers are taken to task for this. Sure. All the time. Eventually it more or less all comes out in the wash, you might say. And one goes on. To imagine and re-imagine.

    The greater of these books could be a new exegesis…I, almost, would like to say. Of nature, the universe and mind unfolding towards the future, for źL’avenir est la seule transcendance des hommes sans Dieu.╗ [Histoire] dans L’Homme RÚvoltÚ, Gallimard – p 207

  5. #5 Pawlie Kokonuts
    January 27, 2008

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, …
    than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” as Hamlet put it. Substitute “science” for “philosophy.” That’s partly the point of your book, to this reader. And many scientists arrogantly refuse to see the limits of their findings, and in the process pretend (in effect) to be philosophers and theologians. (Incidentally, not very long ago, theology was considered the highest form of study.)

  6. #6 bsci
    January 28, 2008

    I think the bigger problem with the publicizers of neuroscience (Pinker included) is that many start in their area of expertise, but, being such an exciting topic, want to branch out into the big questions of mind/soul etc. If they present their work as a cross between neuroscience and philosophy, like I think Jonah does (though I haven’t read his book), it’s ok, but if they try to frame their entire story as Neuroscience they generally get into trouble.

    One of the few people who I feel really talks about the big picture while not pushing all ideas and the one true Neuroscience is Oliver Sachs. His blend of case studies, scientific research and philosophical tangents seems to work without preaching.

    I might was well throw in a plug for “What’s Going on In There” by Lise Eliot, which is probably one of the best publicizing efforts of neuroscience to a large audience than any I’ve seen in a while. She also provides direct examples of how basic science animal research improves our understanding of brain development. This is all in a book targeted to parents of young children.

  7. #7 Rachael
    January 28, 2008

    I’m torn on this issue. On first glance, I completely agree that science needs to be made understandable to the public. At the same time, I’ve got to admit that my biggest scientific pet peeve is misinterperted science. It drives me crazy when scientific results that are generalized too far, taken out of context, or completely misunderstood.

    It is the nature of a science education to make us scientists feel all high and mighty. Why else did we spend 10 years in as “students” and slave through post-docs? Why, to understand the subtle depths and intricacies of our research field, of course! Err, I’m being only partly sarcastic. It is hard to escape the feeling that only really qualified scientists should be able to interpret primary literature… So there I am trying to admit my own arrogance yet I can’t seem to get rid of it.

    There’s a happy medium. I hope…

  8. #8 SimonCT
    January 30, 2008

    I second Jillian above. Those of us who aren’t experts can nevertheless get excited about new discoveries, and widen our perceptions through so-called popular science writing. Most of us, I hope, are aware that scientific theories are contested, so whilst reading Steven Pinker’s ‘The Blank Slate’, I understood that there are probably scientists out there who don’t agree with him, and that I shouldn’t necessarily consider his views as gospel (he he). I think that virtually anything contributing to ‘Breaking the Spell’ is worthwhile in some way.

    I also agree with Joseph Urban, and have reservations about the term ‘popular’ when associated with science writing. But then, I’m not a scientist!

    I’d love to know what you all think of the latest article on the Seed site, ‘Questioning Consciousness’, in terms of this ‘Popularizing’ argument.

    Best, Simon.

  9. #9 Katy
    February 4, 2008

    I have to say, I disagree with your interpretation of Jason Zevin’s well-put article. I don’t think the main “take home” point of Zevin’s diatribe against Pinker was to assert that science should not be made available to the public. He is only noting the dangers of academic dishonesty, when researchers can go above the checks and balances of peer review and play up some p.r. to make all of their theories seem completely validated (not to mention with exaggerated importance) while slandering the work done by other researchers. As someone who worked in the field and enjoys reading both scientific journals and “popularized” science, I have certainly noticed in a lot of published books by researchers (certainly excluding yours, Oliver Sacks, etc) like Pinker that set off my bullshit detector every now and then during the course of the book, and I can notice where they seem to be stretching their results and interpretations. I know what things stand out as red flags, but I think it is unfortunate that certain research may be devalued and certain falsehoods set forth to people outside the field just because these writers are trying to beef up support for their working hypothesis.
    Okay that is my rant, haha. Good site Jonah!

  10. #10 a┼čk ┼čiirleri
    March 19, 2009

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, …
    than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” as Hamlet put it. Substitute “science” for “philosophy.” That’s partly the point of your book, to this reader. And many scientists arrogantly refuse to see the limits of their findings, and in the process pretend (in effect) to be philosophers and theologians. (Incidentally, not very long ago, theology was considered the highest form of study.)

  11. #11 a┼čk mesajlar─▒
    July 11, 2009

    I thought The Blank Slate did a pretty good job on dismissing the until recently popular notion that human nature is almost completely malleable. He didn’t do this using his “particular view of the brain” as much as by refering to behavioral genetics and its massive twin and adoption studies.

  12. #12 a┼čk s├Âzleri
    July 16, 2009

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, …
    than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” as Hamlet put it. Substitute “science” for “philosophy.” That’s partly the point of your book, to this reader. And many scientists arrogantly refuse to see the limits of their findings, and in the process pretend (in effect) to be philosophers and theologians. (Incidentally, not very long ago, theology was considered the highest form of study.)

  13. #13 a┼čk s├Âzleri
    September 7, 2009

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, …
    than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” as Hamlet put it. Substitute “science” for “philosophy.” That’s partly the point of your book, to this reader. And many scientists arrogantly refuse to see the limits of their findings, and in the process pretend (in effect) to be philosophers and theologians. (Incidentally, not very long ago, theology was considered the highest form of study.)

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