NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Talking about science... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

For the last several months this blog has discussed brain science in some detail. It is fairly easy to do. I get questions, I write a description, you give me feedback. But for the most part, I do not see you and you do not see me. It is a rather anonymous relationship, aided by the fact that I write with a nom de plume to isolate my ramblings from official proclamations that could be attributed to my professional day job. I am ethically constrained from "practicing medicine without a license." Likewise I must make sure that nothing I say could be construed as an official communications or positions of my employer. Even when my super-secret pen-name identity gets frayed around the edges, it's still plausible deniability.

It's not so easy in person.

Scottish Highlands
During my recent trip to Scotland I was frequently asked what I did. This was usually by folks either at my destination or traveling with me on the airplane or train. An American going to Aberdeen Scotland is frequently assumed to be in the oil business. Aberdeen is on the North Sea and a convenient dispatch point for the oil rigs. Folks are then quite surprised to find that I am an academic, a professor visiting the medical school.

"What do you teach?" is the frequent question. I tell them I mostly do research on Learning and Memory.

"Oh, I need some of that!" is the response *so* many times that I have lost count. I usually laugh and say that I do to, hence the reason I do the research.

Occasionally someone will probe deeper, and I will mention that some of my work involves drugs of abuse that alter memory. It's a fairly safe topic and I can talk about it fairly easily.  I stay away from discussions of drug legalization, I don't mention neural prosthetics, and I especially don't talk about the use of animals in research.  I *can* and will, but in Europe and the U.K., it's not something I'll discuss in a public place.  Many years ago I was in Austria for a meeting when some exciting scientific news was released about a drug that counters the memory impairment accompanying sleep deprivation.  When discussing it with some U.K & European students and postdocs, I was informed that (A) Sleep deprivation is an American problem, people really should just sleep more,(B) Americans have no respect for the rights of lab animals (the drug was tested in primates) and (C) We Americans should just hope that the military doesn't get hold of the finding, since they would only abuse it.

The ignorance and anti-science bias of these supposed scientists-in-training was astounding!  How much more so would we find public attitudes?  One need only to look at the comments to a recent New York Times review of a scientific journal article by some of my colleagues (  Since I am interested in, and know the work by these folks, I know that many of the news articles got subtle details wrong or overstated the findings - still the public attitude was about 50:50 supportive and ignorant - ignorant of the findings, ignorant of the applications, and ignorant of the essential value of scientific research.

I blame media:  I blame news that will report only sensationalized stories.  I blame movies and TV that portray scientists as evil monsters or overlords bent on world domination.  I blame Science Fiction that often gets scientific details wrong. 

I blame our educational system that "dumbs down" science for the least common denominator.  There are schools in inner-city Los Angeles that teach only one week of science in the entire school year.  Students get to college and still have to take more than a year's worth of "general education" or "liberal arts" classes to make up for what they didn't learn in grade school, then require 5-6 years to get a 4-year education.  We have graduate students in science that can't write - heck we have *professors* that can't write!

I blame politicians and public figures that will latch onto a  single scientific "fact" and never let go even when it is proved to be wrong.  It is now clear that the "fact" that measles vaccinations "caused" autism was wholly manufactured by a "scientist" with inadequate credentials, inadequate research, inadequate statistics, and who stood to personally profit from the public panic caused by his pronouncement.  Yet we have celebrities and public figures who will state that "just because that piece of evidence was disproved doesn't mean it isn't true!"  Why, yes it does, but ignorance of science means you don't understand *why* you are wrong.  Further, the politicization of science means that dissention and research into alternatives is shut down as being not "politically correct."

I blame scientists.
Yes, I do.  We avoid publicity, because we don't want to be targets.  We are not taught to speak to lay audiences, we don't give good interviews, we don't write for the general public.  We couch our papers in terminology and equations that can only be understood by others in our (very) restricted fields.

I recall a "Wizard of Id" cartoon in which the wizard is complaining that athletes earn more than scientists.  He is told that no one ever bought a ticket to see a scientist!

It's true.  We're boring.  Science is not bubbling flasks of colored liquids, flashing lights or sparks of lightning.  The lab rats are in cages and not mutating into city-destroying monsters (except for Ratfink).  A "mutant" in real scientific terms has one gene changed, leading to something as benign as more or less sensitivity to a particular drug.  Science is grad students in the lab all day and night looking through microscopes.  It is professors sitting in front of a PC running statistics and writing grants and papers.  It is researchers spending hours or even days soldering, clipping and connecting wires to get another 25 microvolts of noise removed from their recording systems.

So what can we do about this?

You're doing it right now, as am I.  Science needs to be brought into the public eye.  *Real* science: accurate, precise, and understandable.  Writers like Asimov, Sagan and Crichton who write fiction and nonfiction from the perspective of a scientist.  SF writers Catherine Asaro, Travis Taylor, Stephanie Osborn, Gray Rinehart - and yes, Tedd Roberts - who *are* engineers and scientists and write SF with real science in it.

Scientists need to talk more, interview more, and frankly, write their science in a manner that can be understood by the public.  We need to *teach* science, and debate it openly in public without anyone shutting one side down as being a foregone conclusion.

And those of you who are writers, or want to be writers:  get the science right. 


This blog has covered all of the basics of the brain, structure and function.  Next we need to discuss using this info in writing, and the best way to do that is to discuss specific brain diseases and disorders and how to incorporate them as plot devices.

I'll put up a brief post on Wednesday outlining the upcoming topics, as well as an invitation to readers to suggest topics or questions, then Friday we'll start to dig in.  If I have to change the blog posting schedule to accommodate day job and blogging, I'll make that announcement next weekend.

Until then:  *Educate* your brain.  It's the only brain you've got!

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