Science and Self-Criticism (Mirror Neurons Too)

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.


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Science is not a game. It is not like basketball or tennis. There are no winners or losers. If you have to analogize it with a sport, it is probably most like mountain climbing. The arguments in science are like the arguments over the best route to the peak, and whether it will be sunny or stormy when you get there. And there are treacherous slopes and career-threatening if not life-threatening slips and falls, and heroic rescues along the way.

And there are conflicts in science like there are conflicts in mountaineering, and they make good stories, as anyone who has read or watched books/movies like The Eiger Sanction knows. But secret assassination plots are not what mountaineering is really about. The real stories are far more compelling.

By Will Masen (not verified) on 26 Apr 2007 #permalink

Conflict in science is not sexy at all. See string theory.

Ugh. If the world was full of educated, intelligent people you'd have a point, but don't you remember how much fun, not to mention opportunities for quote mining, that creationists got out of the evolution wars? The problem is that science frequently discovers things that people don't want to hear, and if the idea that scientists constantly argue with each other permeates the public conscious you will simply feed the 'science is only (liberal/atheist) opinion' meme.

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 26 Apr 2007 #permalink

Part of the problem starts with how we teach science. We spend little time on science as an institution or the social and political factors that into the production of knowledge. A "Science and society" course would make for an important HS elective at a minimum, or as a required GenED course at the college level.

This type of introduction would potentially sponsor greater public interest in the social and political side of science, and give citizens a framework for making sense of why scientists from different or overlapping traditions might view a scientific topic very differently.

Chris Mooney's forthcoming Storm World does this very successfully, exploring the differences in views on the hurricane-global warming link as they map to climate modelers versus hurricane forecasters.

It is amazing how strongly professionals have taken hold of mirror neurons as the solution to nearly every question. Kid has ADHD? Mirror neurons. School violence? Mirror neurons. A client with trouble in the workplace? You guessed it, mirror neurons again.

It is exciting that there is now a focus on the neurological basis of behavior, but it would be more even exciting if professionals would show as much interest on the rest of the field.

You're probably right. A geek may remember a theory for its neatness, but most people perceive and remember things through archetypes - elements of drama.

And Masen: Of course there are winners and losers. Dawkins vs Gould - you can't guess who won?

Gopnik claims there are four misconceptions in the "myth" of mirror neurons, that animals and humans are necessarily comparable, that brain structure is innate, that brain imaging and neuronal activity are related, and that a single type of neuron correlates with a single type of experience. Now at least the first three of those are usually true. The fourth is a matter of meaning, I would think. Retinal ganglion cells are absolutely essential to vision. So one could say that retinal ganglion cells are what our vision is all about. Of course, cortical blindness proves otherwise. So does alexia without agraphia. Yes there are other neurons involved in our utilizing vision as much as we do, but still there are these cells in the retina that explain so much about what vision is about, including colors. Talking about retinal ganglion cells as being the essence of vision is not a myth.

I don't see anything in what Gopnik writes that shows that any of these four supposed misconceptions are in fact that for mirror neurons. There just isn't the data for a complete story. Well, lots of neuroscience is like that.

The most telling part of the article for me is the comparison to the "myth" of cerebral laterality. OK, maybe the idea of mirror neurons is as overused as that idea was, but I doubt it. People love dualities, and cerebral laterality fed that pre-existing mythology, even for some to call the left hemisphere male and the right female, despite that women are so verbal. Yes, that's going too far, yet the profound degree of cerebral laterality is apparent to anyone who has seen comparable strokes of the left hemisphere and the right and can notice how much more the difference is than just speech. Cerebral laterality is a big deal. Mirror neurons may be just as big. It is not a stretch to say empathy may rest in mirror neurons just as vision rests in retinal ganglion cells. That's a big difference than those who thought empathy must be taught intellectually or through an indwelling spirit. Of course people pick up on that, maybe too much, but how is it wrong to equate trying to save someone from harm with mirror neurons? Do you know that the essential biology of that action isn't mirror neurons? Alison Gopnik certainly doesn't say that in her article. She's just being critical. I doubt her mirror neurons have anything to do with that. Then again maybe she sees herself writing the New York Times article in such a speculative way and that prompts her to be as critical of the other writer as she would be of herself. Why not?