My subjective take on issues in and around science. Profiles of interesting scientists, etc. Also, juicy videos of nature, physics, and chemistry, etc.
A lot of us Fucking Love Science and I’m glad about that but overly romantic thinking about Science means we are naive in a world that exploits naivety. This (happily) working scientist explains the rat race aspects of vocational daily science with a special insight into the perverse role of journalists as sloppy, inaccurate promoters of studies in search of public attention. Journalists shake dollars loose with exciting stories that are sometimes even partly true. This cycle points to the danger of scientists getting sloppy too, rushing to publish, making headlines sound sexy, and emphasizing results that are rarely replicable just to keep playing the (now degraded) game. We should think about this stuff. Over a long enough period, that’s a death spiral for what we fucking love about science.*
People think my job is to search for deep truths, understand the meaning of life and how the world and the universe works.
In reality, my main job is to write papers and get grants so my institution can build its reputation and get money. Most research that is published is wrong in some way (except for analytical work on theory), and not because we are being dishonest. It’s because we need to publish a lot and there really isn’t time to zero in on some ultimate truth, we just need to get things right enough to publish. And even if we had all the time in the world, there is the issue of experimental design. For one thing, experimental design is very subtle and difficult and most of the papers I read didn’t really do the right experiment to support their point. You can ask them to do more experiments as a reviewer, but as you can expect, this is not your favorite thing to read when your paper is reviewed because it means more time and money you probably don’t have.
That brings me to the other problem, even if you do have the time, do you have the money? Enough people? The right equipment? An infinite number of just the right test subjects? You see where this is going…
So we write our paper and try to make as big a splash as we can so we can get promoted in our jobs, get tenure, and get more grants. (Also because we want to get the information out there for others to use, research that is unpublished is just a hobby.) The institution wants to peddle this work for more clout, so they write up a press release that over-simplified the research and over-extrapolates the possible importance of the findings. This is sent to journalists who don’t read the actual paper, but rather report based on the press release an even more overly simplified version of the paper, now with wildly speculative implications for humanity, the earth, and/or understanding the universe.
This is how you can publish a paper that shows that mice react kind of funny in a statistically significant way to being exposed to a chemical that is commonly used in ink, and then you read in the New York Times about how using ballpoint pens will kill you.
EDIT: My main point here is that people should be skeptical about science, particularly what they read that is written by journalists – whether it is news articles or actual books. Popular science books were once written by the scientists themselves, now more often they are written by journalists. And there are people who are motivated more by telling a good story than showing what science is really like – full of mistakes and uncertainty, and normal pressures of any career, it is not just the pure search for truth.
But I don’t mean at all to say that being a scientist is terrible (I feel the opposite), I just don’t like the over-simplified way people view science as some pure source of distilled perfect truth. It’s not, but that’s not a bad thing. Understanding life is not simple, nor is understanding how the universe works, the fact that it is so complex is what makes being a scientist fascinating – but what makes writing best-selling book that tells the whole story a bit harder.
*- Like so many other things that depend on stockholders for sufficient funding, the important work becomes hollowed out inside and drifts further from its purpose.
You contain a 3D sensory map of your life. It is constructed in real-time and space as you move, as you, the pen tip, extend the map. An adult’s map would look like the busy tangle of way-points in the narrative-line of a child’s drawing. You know, the drawn line that accompanies “Then, they went here and saw a witch! They were so scared they had to go over here to the hospital! ”
Can you imagine the map from above? Superimpose it over a world map or your country map. The places you lived a long time are burned in like an angry scribble, the one-off but memorable trips may be like islands only connected to your mainland with faint travel lines. Mixed in with the streets and parks of your memory, attached to them, are the smells of all these places. That incredible honeysuckle jungle by the elementary school playground? It waits for thee. You contain a 3D map overlaid with a museum of scent and stink.
Here’s the bare bones neurology: “Place cells” lay down connect-the-dots, step by step maps of the real world in your hippocampus. They also bind to local aromas, creating our scent memories of specific locations. If you can remember the smell of your grandparent’s home and think about that place, that is this function at work.
- My grandparent’s house smelled like varnish downstairs where Grandpa made furniture and like grape juice, knackebrod, and unknown Swedish spices upstairs in Grandma’s domain. Opening closets and long-closed boxes, even lying on the bedspreads in that house left strong scent memories with no names.
- To return home we rode the Long Island Railroad, smelling of people’s coats, train engine, newspapers and whiffs of the day outside when the train stopped and inhaled.
- Next, the subway, smelling of the warm wind it carried along, orange drinks, hot dogs, and more coats.
- Home, at last, smelling of drink and smoke and many books but above all, smelling of home.
This is why experiencing a sudden strong scent memory takes you out of the moment. You have been contacted by yourself in another time and place. Some memories come when we call them. Others only emerge as you return to their actual spot. It’s as if we suddenly recognize each other, that place (inside us, on our map) realizes we have returned. The surprise of recognition seems to come from both sides. In these very rare moments, I feel the experience of the child I was for a gleaming second before it vanishes like a dream.
Imagine how much more important this is in the lives of animals whose nose is basically their executive function.
Here’s a simple proof of concept game. Consider these smells and try to remember either the last place you smelled them or the place that automatically comes to mind. This would be so much more powerful with actual scents. I found many didn’t immediately suggest a place but if I kept it in mind for a little, a place came into focus, filling in around the scent.
- Hay, fresh-cut lumber, saltwater docks, cedar, aspirin, leather, play-dough, newly printed book.
- And a few less pleasant: Pulp mill, sickroom, smothering perfume, unclean body odor.
Nancy Kanwisher covers the neurology in depth below. (She has an entire MIT neurology lecture course on YouTube.)
Outside of war crimes, it’s hard to think of a crueler experiment than the infamous Harry Harlow “Cloth Mother, Wire Mother” experiments where the mothers of infant monkeys were removed and replaced by inanimate hardware and some padding.
Wire mother was a wire effigy of a “mom,” complete with a nipple and bottle. “She” was for food provision. Cloth mother was soft, designed for clinging, but provided no food. When the baby monkeys were intentionally frightened (by a stuffed bear toy) they inevitably clung to cloth mother.
“Later experiments showed that infant monkeys would open a door hour after hour just to see cloth mother through a small window. I used to show the Harlow films in class. I don’t anymore because they routinely make students cry. There is nothing as pathetic as a pink-faced baby monkey getting experimentally frightened only to cling inconsolably to a fake mother.”*
Objectively, this is a very callous, cruel treatment and don’t forget, as a controlled experiment, there were other infants who only knew wire mother. Imagining the study can elicit rage at the experimenters and seeing them as human monsters, lacking all compassion. The exasperated question bubbles up:” Why? Why would you even think of that, let alone do it?” The answer may blend our black and white feelings toward something grayer.
“Here is the historical context: The behaviorists and the psychoanalytic school were arguing about the mechanisms that connect an infant to his mother. Namely, they focused on feeding and food. The upshot, these theoreticians thought that if you feed a baby, he will associate you with food and develop positive feelings for you, the feeder.”*
The behaviorists were the long-established dominant modality in psychology. They were disinterested in any internal, subjective human experiences, only the observable, measurable externals, the behavior. The were mechanistic by design. Every scientific discipline in this period embraced maximum reductionism, the least complex explanation.
Simple reductionism is scientifically responsible, even necessary. But every community develops a culture and every culture has purists motivated to outdo the “causals” by their extreme display of cultural purity. This is what drives sanctimony in religion and outrage among the politically correct. Whatever the medium of purity is, it becomes virtue and power in the community. Many ascend to power within their culture by riding this balloon. The culture of science is distinct from the practice of science but it does bend and shape it.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
– attributed to Einstein (though maybe not accurately)
The idea of scientific reductionism became distorted by this one-upmanship of cultural virtue signaling. Simple reductionism gave way to rejecting complexity where it was encountered in favor of something less true but more acceptable. Nothing could be greater than the sum of its parts. Reductionism became unscientific, even anti-scientific to the extent that it rejected facts for not conforming to policy. Theories born in this period have a Stalinist harshness about them. In some disciplines, this was not very destructive but the study of warm, complicated humanity by the behaviorists celebrated only the mechanistic and minimal in us. There was contempt toward tenderness, scorn for softness.
“There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults … Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap … Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task…”. – John Watson, famous behaviorist, and child care expert
This was popular, best practice, expert advice. The kind you would have been given. After all, behaviorists know the real facts, scientifically, it’s proven!
In other words, this was the age of wire mother. Placed in power by the Behaviorists, she reigned over our culture for decades, demanding the sacrifice of comforting our children.
The behaviorists over-invested in for-its-own-sake reductionism to the extreme point of ignoring or rejecting Biology as a driving force. The heartbreaking, awful wire mother experiments, gave behaviorism a broken nose, partly BECAUSE of their shock value. The shocking news that babies (and the rest of us) need tender cuddling seemed afterward, kind of obvious and made the crackpot minimalism of behaviorism visible (to most) at last.
This is how a hard science, Biology, rescued us from the cold theology of behaviorists. And how an act of blatant cruelty and engineered suffering reduced cruelty and suffering for millions born since.
*From: “Three Lessons From Wire Mother”, Patricia H. Hawley Ph.D., Psychology Today, 2018
“In every field of inquiry, it is true that all things should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler. (And for every problem that is muddled by over-complexity, a dozen are muddled by over-simplifying.)” –Sydney J. Harris
I have filled many “pages” (Okay, too many) describing the problems that go with reductionism when it isn’t used as an experimental approach, but as a pseudo-philosophy of life appropriate for non-scientists. Most people don’t have a perpetual burr under their saddle about this sort of thing: Understandably. It’s sort of the philosophical version of being irked by someone consistently misusing a word and spreading that misunderstanding to others.
Surprisingly, the best argument against the cement mattress of reductionism might not involve me complaining at all, but simply sharing the details of some complex systems and letting the observer grasp the mind-blowing nettle for themselves.
These are very well done walkthroughs of our molecular machinery; skip around if you like, there will not be a quiz later. I challenge you to watch even a little of this without being shocked into a new open-mindedness concerning the genius underlying life. *
“These animations show cellular biology on the molecular scale. The structure of chromatin, the processes of transcription, translation, DNA replication, and cell division are shown. All animations are scientifically accurate and derived from molecular biology and crystallography research. I have composed this video from multiple animations under fair use for non-profit, educational purposes. I do not claim copyright on this video or its contents, with the exception of the cell image. Most credit goes to Drew Berry and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI TV) for the animations. Full credits are at the end of the video.” James Tyrwhitt-Drake
DNA animations by wehi.tv for science-art exhibition
-* Usual disclaimer: No religious ax being ground. Not a creationist.
This is one hellacious science fact; it’s absolutely Metal. A question about the evolutionary point of menstruation leads to revealing the surprising life and death struggle between Mother and Fetus. It turns out their interests overlap only to a point. Beyond that point, it’s all cold-blooded competition; a no holds barred cage match. Suddenly, a third player appears.
Suzanne Sadedin, Ph.D. Evolutionary Biology
“…In many mammals, the placenta, which is part of the fetus, just interfaces with the surface of the mother’s blood vessels, allowing nutrients to cross to the little darling. Marsupials don’t even let their fetuses get to the blood: they merely secrete a sort of milk through the uterine wall. However, other mammal groups, including the higher primates, have retained a more direct connection, termed a hemochorial placenta. Among humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, its development is especially invasive.
Inside the uterus, we have a thick layer of endometrial tissue, which contains only tiny blood vessels. The endometrium seals off our main blood supply from the newly implanted embryo. The growing placenta literally burrows through this layer, rips into arterial walls and re-wires them to channel blood straight to the hungry embryo. It delves deep into the surrounding tissues, razes them and pumps the arteries full of hormones so they expand into the space created. It paralyzes these arteries so the mother cannot even constrict them.
What this means is that the growing fetus now has direct, unrestricted access to its mother’s blood supply. It can manufacture hormones and use them to manipulate her. It can, for instance, increase her blood sugar, dilate her arteries, and inflate her blood pressure to provide itself with more nutrients. And it does. Some fetal cells find their way through the placenta and into the mother’s bloodstream. They will grow in her blood and organs, and even in her brain, for the rest of her life, making her a genetic chimera.
This might seem rather disrespectful. In fact, it’s sibling rivalry at its evolutionary best. You see, mother and fetus have quite distinct evolutionary interests. The mother ‘wants’ to dedicate approximately equal resources to all her surviving children, including possible future children, and none to those who will die. The fetus ‘wants’ to survive, and take as much as it can get. (The quotes are to indicate that this isn’t about what they consciously want, but about what evolution tends to optimize.)
There’s also a third player here – the father, whose interests align still less with the mother’s because her other offspring may not be his. Through a process called genomic imprinting, certain fetal genes inherited from the father can activate in the placenta. These genes ruthlessly promote the welfare of the offspring at the mother’s expense.”
Science is a Gas Giant.
I don’t mean anything disparaging by that. It’s a mental model to freshen up our thinking.
The unequivocal territory of science is the sum of theories plus experiments that have unambiguous, replicable results. This body of knowledge is the diamond-hard core at the heart of science. There are a lot of physics and chemistry experiments here. They seem to know their parts by heart.
Just beyond the border of that core, the gas atmosphere begins but it is nearly as hard as the core itself. It’s a long, dense gradient from here to the wispy edge of the atmosphere that is literally made of thin clouds under scattered atoms and space. Close to the core, the experiments are as replicable as the day is long when you average them out. There are enough squishy, stochastic details here that any random experiment might say something new, but not useful. The ambiguous results are overwhelmed by un-ambiguous ones like a single black grain in a bag of white rice.*
Heading outward, the variables faced by theorists get more complicated and slippery. If the questions science aims to answer were pickle jars, we’d crack them open without a beat at the core, struggle with rubber gloves and screwdrivers around the middle, and create thought experiments about jars and pickles at the foggy upper edge. Your thought experiment may perfectly predict opening the jar, and what’s inside but it’ll be a long time before anyone gets a pickle. Continue reading
I pray this is the beginning of reducing anxiety for real. Imagine the liberated potential and freedom from fear.
Study of nonhuman primates lays the groundwork for new strategies in treating anxiety
Boosting a single molecule in the brain can change ‘dispositional anxiety,’ the tendency to perceive
many situations as threatening, in nonhuman primates, researchers have found. The molecule,
neurotrophin-3, stimulates neurons to grow and make new connections.
/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy [science]. – Willy the Shake
I grumble about scientific reductionism (SR) regularly but I thought of an angle that shows starkly, what is wrong with it. It is a Jekyll and Hyde thing. The problem comes when it escapes from the lab.
SR identifies the core reality of things as their simplest parts and origins. It is a filter against complexity, seeking the Least Story. SR understands the essence of something as “What it all boils down to”. As if a whole chicken, boiled for days down to greasy, particulate liquid better-represents chickens than the prepared carcass, let alone a living chicken. In an experiment, SR is like reducing fractions or maximum simplifying of non-essential variables. It makes results less ambiguous and that is good.
But it spread.
“All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.”
― Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity
Monod is the man chiefly responsible for the successful neo-Darwinian movement1. I’m not specifically picking on him but using him as a fair example of scientific reductionism when it climbs over the wall. There are tons of these quotes from him and I chose the nearest one. He is using the word Contingency to mean unpredictable randomness. He means all of us are hiding from the truth that we are an accident of the universe. Excuse me, we are MERELY an accident of the universe. Excuse me, I mean a meaningless universe.
Careful philosophy shoppers should ask questions.
- What are the tools he used to run his meaning experiments?
- How were the experiments constructed?
- How would he recognize meaning if it existed? How would he observe its absence?
- Provided he had a meaning detector, and observed its absence, why would he take that to mean that the result is universal?