We know that irrelevant neuroscience jargon increases the persuasiveness of arguments, but why is the current trend of finding a neural explanation for much of human behaviour a dangerous thing?
In his warning against reductionism and trusting in neural explanations for largely psychological phenomena,Â Tyler Burge, Professor of Philosophy at UCLA, describes the three things wrong with “neurobabble” (emphasis mine):
First, it provides little insight into psychological phenomena.Â Often the discoveries amount to finding stronger activation in some area of the brain when a psychological phenomenon occurs.Â As if it is news that the brain is not dormant during psychological activity!Â [â€¦]Â Experiments have shown that neurobabble produces the illusion of understanding.Â But little of it is sufficiently detailed to aid, much less provide, psychological explanation.
Second, brains-in-love talk conflates levels of explanation.Â Neurobabble piques interest in science, but obscures how science works.Â Individuals see, know, and want to make love.Â Brains donâ€™t.Â Those things are psychological â€” not, in any evident way, neural.Â Brain activity is necessary for psychological phenomena, but its relation to them is complex. [â€¦]
The third thing wrong with neurobabble is that it has pernicious feedback effects on science itself.Â Too much immature science has received massive funding, on the assumption that it illuminates psychology.Â The idea that the neural can replace the psychological is the same idea that led to thinking that all psychological ills can be cured with drugs.
The longest continuous evolution experiment was startedÂ in 1988 and is still ongoing. The study, examining the “evolvability” of Escherichia coli (E. coli), has recently surpassed 52,000 generations and has had a sample of the population frozen and savedÂ every 75 days (every 500 generations). The wealth of data obtained is fantastic and these frozen ancestorsÂ have beenÂ the focus ofÂ a recent study that set out to find whether the eventual “evolutionary winners” displayed signs of their genetic superiority hundreds of generations earlier.
ToÂ the researcher’s surprise, the bacterial winners in fact showed the absolute opposite: they were far inferior to the strains ofÂ bacteria that died out in later generations. To explain this they discovered that while these ancestorsÂ were conventionally less evolutionarily fit (they reproduced at a much slower rate), theseÂ “evolutionary winners”Â were much better at adapting to circumstances and at taking advantage of beneficial mutations. Adaptability trumped fitness.
“[The idea of] selectionÂ for evolvability has been in the air for a long time, but this is one of the first real systematic and explicit demonstrations of this actually happening,” said evolutionary biologist and population geneticist Michael Desai of Harvard University [â€¦]
The first surprise came when the team compared the fitness of four strains — two EWsÂ [eventual winners] and two ELs [eventual losers] — and found that while all four strains had significantlyÂ higher fitness than the ancestral strain, the ELs appeared more fit than the EWs. Comparing the four strains directly confirmed the result: The two EW strains were at a significant disadvantage to the ELs. If these strains had not accumulated any more mutations, the researchers estimated the EWsÂ would have gone extinct in just 350 additional generations. [â€¦]
The results suggested that the EWs, while initially at a disadvantage, prevailed in the long-term because they were more likely to acquire more beneficial mutations. In other words, the EWsÂ had greater evolvability.
This seems like evolutionary evidence for the premise of Tim Harford’s latest book, Adapt.
In a near-perfect parody ofÂ scienceÂ reporting inÂ the popular press, Martin Robbins,Â The Lay Scientist, created “a news website article about a scientific paper“.
In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding? [â€¦]
This is a sub-heading that gives the impression I am about to add useful context. [â€¦]
To pad out this section I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link.
I will preface them with “it is believed” or “scientists think” to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.
You get the idea, I’m sure, but it’s well worth looking at the fullÂ piece as the spoof also acts as a guide to why we should avoid clichÃ©d, formulaic writing: it quickly gets boring and predictable.
In a follow-up to his parody, Robbins looks at why this tired formula has come into play and what can be done about it.
Also: Are stories with loaded-question headlines popular?
“To make somebody read it”. That is the only reason for writing, according to the renowned Guardian editor Tim Radford, author of the “manifesto for the simple scribe”.
This manifesto, previously distributed to editors at Elsevier and Nature, consistsÂ of twenty-five writing tips that collectively tell a science writer all they need to know to write consistently good copy.
Many, if not all, of Radford’s tips are relevant to writing styles other than science journalism. Some favourite quotes:
You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, or the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.
No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.
If in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. However, never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader’s intelligence.
Remember that people will always respond to something close to them. Concerned citizens of south London should care more about economic reform in Surinam than about Millwall’s fate on Saturday, but mostly they don’t. Accept it.
Most scientific papers consist of “predictable, stilted structure and language”, leading to consistently boring journal articles. Kaj Sand-Jensen, writing in the ecology journal Oikos, decided to investigate this problem and concluded his research by providing a set of recommendations for how to write consistently boring scientific articles (pdf):
- Avoid focus
- Avoid originality and personality
- Write l o n g contributions
- Remove most implications and every speculation
- Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones
- Omit necessary steps of reasoning
- Use many abbreviations and technical terms
- Suppress humor and flowery language
- Degrade species and biology to statistical elements
- Quote numerous papers for self-evident statements
Even though this was originally published in an ecology journal, you can’t fail to see how these recommendations apply to almost every other piece of written work.