Neurobabble

Tyler Burge has a piece in the New York Times Opinionator column entitled “A Real Science of Mind”, in which he takes neuroscience to task for claims that understanding the brain is the right level of explanation for understanding mind (increasingly, a word that is losing its utility, IMHO).  He rightly trounces neurobabble, and points out that correlations “between localized neural activity and specific psychological phenomena are important facts.  But they merely set the stage for explanation.”  Where he gets into trouble is when he continues by saying  “Being purely descriptive, they explain nothing.  Some correlations do aidpsychological explanation.  For example, identifying neural events underlying vision constrains explanations of timing in psychological processes and has helped predict psychological effects.  We will understand both the correlations and the psychology, however, only through psychological explanation.”

Claims of hegemony over insight for one discipline or another are always suspect.  I am all for reducing the amount of neurobabble out there in the world, but trying to predict which level of explanation will have most meaningful answers is a bit like reading tea leaves – it is probably most prudent to watch carefully as the fields mature, and then take the most powerful observations and incorporate them into a new canon, one that has yet to solidify.  Moreover, there is no shortage of neurobabble emerging from psychology, so one should make sure one’s house is in order before casting stones.

Link to Tyler Burge’s NY Times article.

Tweeting the brain

Much is made at neuroethics conferences and in scientific journals of the broad societal implications lurking in the discoveries of neuroscience — implications for our understanding of those eternal big questions of autonomy, responsibility, identity, and just about any other topic of passionate dinner conversation.

As a few moments pause reveals, though, none of the big answers neuroethicists come up with will have those broad implications we hear about if they don’t make it to the eyes and ears of the people they’re supposed to affect — the public. And therein lies one of the less talked about issues in neuroethics: How does one communicate the neuroscientific view of the soul or of free will to a public unschooled to the ways of the BOLD response or the action potential?

In January’s issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15 science journalists, media specialists and neuroethicists — including Core director Judy Illes and intern Kevin Sauvé — lay out a proposal to improve the communication of neuroscience research by cultivating a band of media-savvy scientists to engage the public in “neurotalk.” Continue reading

Banff: Neuroscience, Ethics, and Public Communication

Communication is the focus of our meeting this weekend at the Banff Centre. Neuroscientists, ethicists, and journalists will collaborate to explore unique modes of engaging the public in the ethics of brain science. The participants are renowned experts in their field and bring with them a world of purpose and promise.

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