Neuron Culture

A bit o’ squabble has broken out about hopeful monsters. As paleontologist evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne notes in a guest post at The Loom, Carl Zimmer’s blog, hopeful monsters are the products of … well, there’s the problem: They were either the product of sudden large evolutionary forces, as suggested in a recent NY Times blog by Olivia Judson or, in Coyne’s view, the product of overactive imaginations and underactive skepticism and fact-tending among biologists like Judson.

Both Judson’s and Coyne’s pieces are good fun reads. I find Coyne’s more convincing, and there’s no buying both here, I think; Coyne says the hopeful monster idea is a pop-up clown that, though horrid science, keeps popping up, basically because there is something cute about it. Clearly he has fun knocking it down, too.

Anyway, as I noted in a comment at Carl’s blog, there’s a lot going on here, including a perennial tension found in both science and writing about science that I find fascinating: The attraction to the attractive narrative on one hand and a commitment to rigor and what scientists call parsimony (the more simpler, more spare, more cautious explanation) on the other.

I once heard this expressed this way: At a table full of scientists and scientist types (groupies?), someone quoted Ptolemy (perhaps apocryphally; I can’t find it anywhere):

“The goal of science is finding the most compelling story consistent with the facts.”

Someone else at the table said,

“No! It is finding the simplest story consistent with the facts.”

Betwixt lies all sorts of room for disagreement, including, it seems, this one between Judson & Coyne. I’m not saying both Coyne and Judson are consistent with the facts on this one. (I’m no qualified judge, but Coyne convinces me Judson wandered astray.) But you see that tension here — and elsewhere, constantly. In the pivotal 19th-century argument over evolution, for instance, which pitted two beautiful, compelling narratives each other: Louis Agassiz’s creationist yarn, which was a gorgeous narrative spun by an electrifying speaker with a dazzling intellect, and Charles Darwin’s story of evolution by natural selection, which also had great narrative drive (if no teleological ‘motive’) and a compelling aesthetic unity. Darwin’s won out, of course (well, mostly …), because he proved his story more consistent with the facts. The debate shaped not just the scientific consensus on the species question but the defini tion

And right now we’re seeing this in the debate over whether the mirror-neuron theory is being wildlly overextended.

But the same tension was at play. We find attractive narrative explanations that are simple — but not TOO simple. And we like NOVEL things (or apparently novel things). This affects both scientists and scientific journalists. I would say, by the way, that sci journalists, just like others, DO have an obligation to describe a field accurately. Doesn’t mean they can’t go out on a limb with their own opinion or reading of something, though, as long as they make clear that — and not reporting — is what they’re doing. This has its dangers, of course, which Judson has encountered in Coyne’s post.

Thanks to Coyne for writing this and Carl for putting it up there.