Pharyngula

This is not how you do science

There is a myth about how science progresses: great men have a eureka moment, and rush in to the lab to do the definitive experiment, often bravely and with the opposition of the Science Establishment, and single-handedly revolutionize a discipline. It’s nonsense. I can’t think of a single example of that kind of work that has gotten anywhere — the closest might be Isaac Newton, who developed some great ideas working privately at his home in Woolsthorpe, but even he was tightly connected to a community of fellow scientists. Science is very much a communal and communicative endeavor, and is built “on the shoulders of giants.”

So I do not approve of the work of Phil Kennedy, which looks like a lot of hare-brained Frankensteinian self-indulgence. Kennedy could not get approval for his experiments in implanting electrodes in human brains — I wonder why? — so he charged off to the Caribbean and had bits of wire and glass stuck deep into his own brain. It did not go well.

The brain surgery lasted 11 and a half hours, beginning on the afternoon of June 21, 2014, and stretching into the Caribbean predawn of the next day. In the afternoon, after the anesthesia had worn off, the neurosurgeon came in, removed his wire-frame glasses, and held them up for his bandaged patient to examine. “What are these called?” he asked.

Phil Kennedy stared at the glasses for a moment. Then his gaze drifted up to the ceiling and over to the television. “Uh … uh … ai … aiee,” he stammered after a while, “… aiee … aiee … aiee.”

Don’t worry, he got better — his deficits were caused by post-operative swelling of his brain, and that eventually diminished, and he started recording data off his electrode.

When Kennedy finally did present the data that he’d gathered from himself—first at an Emory University symposium last May and then at the Society for Neuroscience conference in October—some of his colleagues were tentatively supportive. By taking on the risk himself, by working alone and out-of-pocket, Kennedy managed to create a sui generis record of language in the brain, Chang says: “It’s a very precious set of data, whether or not it will ultimately hold the secret for a speech prosthetic. It’s truly an extraordinary event.” Other colleagues found the story thrilling, even if they were somewhat baffled: In a field that is constantly hitting up against ethical roadblocks, this man they’d known for years, and always liked, had made a bold and unexpected bid to force brain research to its destiny. Still other scientists were simply aghast. “Some thought I was brave, some thought I was crazy,” Kennedy says.

I’d score him as foolhardy and arrogant. I don’t even know what one could do with the data — no one is going to replicate it, there’s nothing to test, and future technologies will probably make Kennedy’s mad adventure irrelevant and unnecessary to replicate. This is a dead end, and risking scrambling your brain is not a smart gamble.

Further, this idea that one has to work around “ethical roadblocks” is troubling. There are “ethical roadblocks” to murdering someone; we don’t generally consider it a virtue if someone works out a clever way to kill a person that isn’t prosecutable under the law. We are talking about brain surgeries on human subjects — damn right there better be ethical limitations imposed on that. The only way around that is to demonstrate that the proposed procedures are safe and pose negligible risk, with incremental experimental work in animals and with duplication and verification by multiple investigators. Transhumanists might dream of some amazing Prigogenic leap that abruptly makes their cyborg aspirations reality, but it’s not going to happen that way.

I also shouldn’t want scientists to be encouraged to come up with ways to get around ethics. What next, is informed consent getting in your way, so you need to come up with a cunning plan to avoid it?

Comments

  1. […] This isn’t the way you do technology I will be able to't bring to mind a unmarried instance of that more or less paintings that has gotten any place — the nearest may well be Isaac Newton, who evolved a few nice concepts running privately at his house in Woolsthorpe, however even he used to be tightly hooked up to a group of … Learn extra on ScienceBlogs (blog) […]

  2. #2 Scot H
    USA
    January 31, 2016

    I do agree that this is not a smart thing to do and shouldn’t generally be promoted. However, I do think that saying individual researchers who flout ethics rules by experimenting on themselves are not successful and don’t advance science is not always true. The first that comes to mind is Barry Marshall who received a Nobel Prize for discovering that H pylori causes ulcers, in part by doing the experiment on himself. Werner Forssmann developed the technique of heart catheterization by amazingly performing it on himself to show it could work–he was fired for this, but ultimately won a Nobel Prize. JBS Haldane, a giant of a scientist, also conducted self-experimentation on the effects of air compression on divers in a seemingly altruistic quest to help divers. It is a problematic area and there are likely many more who have hurt or killed themselves in self-experimentation, but it needs to be recognized that there are also some successes.

  3. #3 G
    February 2, 2016

    PZ, good to see you critiquing Transhumanist nonsense again.

    Kennedy obviously drank the Transhumanist Kool-Aid, per this quote from the linked article at Wired:

    “In the fall of 2012, he self-published a science fiction novel called 2051, which told the story of Alpha, an Irish-born neural electrode pioneer like Kennedy who lived, at the age of 107, as the champion and exemplar of his own technology: a brain wired up inside a 2-foot-tall life-support robot. The novel provided a kind of outline for Kennedy’s dreams: His electrodes wouldn’t simply be a tool for helping locked-in patients to communicate but would also be the engine of an enhanced and cybernetic future in which people live as minds in metal shells.”

    In the Wired interview, Kenney says “Your brain will be infinitely more powerful than the brains we have now. We’re going to extract our brains and connect them to small computers that will do everything for us, and the brains will live on.”

    Brains living inside robots are part of the Transhumanist soteriology (theory of salvation), along with cryogenic brain preservation and “upload” into AI god-boxes. Transhumanism is religion using technology to appear sciencey, like a new incarnation of Scientology with its “auditing” and “personality testing” and bad science fiction jargon. Atheists, rationalists, and skeptics need to get on the case pronto, or this stuff may become more popular than the wacko cults of the 1970s.

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