If you work in a given field for years and years, you’re likely to pick up insights about its problems — that’s why people tend to have such strong opinions about why their particular line of work is the most dysfunctional human institution in existence. In the world of academic research, which has a unique set of problems to grapple with, these insider accounts can act as really important nudges to do better, and yesterday in The Atlantic Ed Yong wrote about a really interesting attempt at research self-correction that is likely to make a splash.
It comes in the form of a new article in Neuron by John W. Krakauer, Asif A. Ghazanfar, Alex Gomez-Marin, Malcolm A. MacIver, and David Poeppel, a quintet of neuroscientists who are worried about the direction of their field. Yong sums up their argument as follows:
[Krakauer] and his fellow curmudgeons argue that brains are special because of the behavior they create—everything from a predator’s pounce to a baby’s cry. But the study of such behavior is being de-prioritized, or studied “almost as an afterthought.” Instead, neuroscientists have been focusing on using their new tools to study individual neurons, or networks of neurons. According to Krakauer, the unspoken assumption is that if we collect enough data about the parts, the workings of the whole will become clear. If we fully understand the molecules that dance across a synapse, or the electrical pulses that zoom along a neuron, or the web of connections formed by many neurons, we will eventually solve the mysteries of learning, memory, emotion, and more. “The fallacy is that more of the same kind of work in the infinitely postponed future will transform into knowing why that mother’s crying or why I’m feeling this way,” says Krakauer. And, as he and his colleagues argue, it will not.
Because neuroscience now has so much cool hardware and software to measure and visualize those dancing molecules and zapping synapses, the argument goes, the field has become more and more preoccupied with the nitty-gritty neuro-stuff of cognition and behavior, at the expense of, well, really studying cognition and behavior. If you have access to all that gadgetry, it isn’t hard to come up with some statistically significant results and get published.
But do these results really mean anything? Not necessarily, argue the researchers. There’s a missing step, since we know so little about the intervening step between “X neurons do Y” and “The owners of those neurons exhibit this behavior as a result.” The brain is still so much of a mystery that unless you carefully connect its activity to real-life behavior, it’s easy to think you’re gaining insight into its function without actually getting anywhere.
Now, neuroscience is super hot right now in part because of all its cool technology, which generates an endless array of cool charts and graphs that is catnip to those of us who write about human behavior — and many neuroscientists themselves are invested in this sort of work. So it will be interesting to watch the reaction to this article play out, and it’s easy to anticipate some pushback.