Tag Archives: science

What’s Wrong With ‘Neurobabble’?

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, Tyler Burge, Pro­fess­or of Philo­sophy at UCLA, describes the three things wrong with “neurobabble” (emphas­is mine):

First, it provides little insight into psy­cho­lo­gic­al phenomena.  Often the dis­cov­er­ies amount to find­ing stronger activ­a­tion in some area of the brain when a psy­cho­lo­gic­al phe­nomen­on occurs.  As if it is news that the brain is not dormant dur­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al activity! […] Exper­i­ments have shown that neurobabble pro­duces the illu­sion of understanding.  But little of it is suf­fi­ciently detailed to aid, much less provide, psy­cho­lo­gic­al explan­a­tion.

Second, brains-in-love talk con­flates levels of explanation.  Neurobabble piques interest in sci­ence, but obscures how sci­ence works.  Indi­vidu­als see, know, and want to make love.  Brains don’t.  Those things are psy­cho­lo­gic­al — not, in any evid­ent way, neural.  Brain activ­ity is neces­sary for psy­cho­lo­gic­al phe­nom­ena, but its rela­tion to them is com­plex. […]

The third thing wrong with neurobabble is that it has per­ni­cious feed­back effects on sci­ence itself.  Too much imma­ture sci­ence has received massive fund­ing, on the assump­tion that it illu­min­ates psychology.  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.

via @mocost

In Evolution, Adaptability Beats Fitness

The longest con­tinu­ous evol­u­tion exper­i­ment was star­ted 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 saved every 75 days (every 500 gen­er­a­tions). The wealth of data obtained is fant­ast­ic and these frozen ancest­or­s have been the focus of a recent study that set out to find wheth­er the even­tu­al “evol­u­tion­ary win­ners” dis­played signs of their genet­ic superi­or­ity hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions earli­er.

To the research­er­’s sur­prise, the bac­teri­al win­ners in fact showed the abso­lute oppos­ite: they were far inferi­or to the strains of bac­teria that died out in later gen­er­a­tions. To explain this they dis­covered that while these ancest­or­s were con­ven­tion­ally less evol­u­tion­ar­ily fit (they repro­duced at a much slower rate), these “evol­u­tion­ary winners“ were much bet­ter at adapt­ing to cir­cum­stances and at tak­ing advant­age of bene­fi­cial muta­tions. Adapt­ab­il­ity trumped fit­ness.

“[The idea of] selec­tion 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 […]

The first sur­prise came when the team com­pared the fit­ness of four strains – two EWs [even­tu­al win­ners] and two ELs [even­tu­al losers] – and found that while all four strains had sig­ni­fic­antly 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 EWs would have gone extinct in just 350 addi­tion­al gen­er­a­tions. […]

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 EWs had great­er evolvab­il­ity.

This seems like evol­u­tion­ary evid­ence for the premise of Tim Har­ford’s latest book, Adapt.

The Scientific Journalism Formula

In a near-per­fect par­ody of sci­ence report­ing in the pop­u­lar press, Mar­tin Robbins, 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? […]

This is a sub-head­ing that gives the impres­sion I am about to add use­ful con­text. […]

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 full piece as the spoof also acts as a guide to why we should avoid clichéd, 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.

via Kot­tke

Also: Are stor­ies with loaded-ques­tion head­lines pop­u­lar?

Science Journalism’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe

“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, con­sist­s 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.

Avoid Boring Writing: Tips (to Avoid) from Scientific Articles

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.

via @Falijn