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Monthly Archives: July 2011

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Tweets for 2011-07-21

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Trust in science

I’ve been listening to the CBC series (2009) “How to Think about Science” (listen here, download here). The first episode starts with Simon Schaffer, co-author of the The Leviathan and the Air Pump. Schaffer argues that scientists are believed because they organise trust well, rather than because they organise skepticism well (which is more in line with the conventional image of science). Far from questioning everything, as we are told science teaches, scientists are successful as expects because of the extended network of organisations, techniques and individuals that allows scientists, in short, to know who to trust.

Schaffer also highlights the social context of the birth of science, focussing on the need for expertise —for something to place trust in — at a time of military, political and ideological conflict. Obviously, our need for certainty is as great in current times.

Understanding of the processes of science, Schaffer asserts, is required for a true understanding of the products of science, and public understanding of both is required for an informed and empowered citizenry.

This last point puts the debate about open access scientific journals in a larger and more urgent perspective. In this view, open access is far more than a merely internal matter to academia, or even merely a simple ethical question (the public fund scientists, the publications of scientists should be free to the public). Rather, open access is foundational to the institution of trusted knowledge that science (and academia more widely) purports to be. The success of early science was in establishing the credibility of mechanisms for ‘remote witnessing’ of phenomenon. The closed-access publishing system threatens to undermine the credibility of scientific knowledge. Once you recognise that scientific knowledge is not the inviolable product of angelic virtue on the part of science, you concede that there the truth of scientific propositions is not enough — we need to take seriously the institutions of trust that allow science to be believed. The status of expert who cannot be questioned is a flattering one, but it relies on short-term cache. If we care about science and the value of scholarship more widely then open access publishing is an urgent priority.

Update: Romanian translation of this web page (by Web Geek Science)

Tweets for 2011-07-14

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The Brain on Trial, on trial

David Eagleman has an article in The Atlantic The Brain on Trial, in which he ‘describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.’

The ever more successful endeavours of neuroscience to link behaviour to biology, claim Eagleman, mean that we will have to acknowledge that the ‘simplistic’ categorisation of individuals into responsible and not-responsible for their actions is untenable. Instead we should admit that culpability is graded and refocus our legal system on rehabilitation and the prevention of recidivism.

In fact, rehabilitation has long been admitted as a core purpose of the justice system, though of course that’s no reason to complain about someone reiterating its importance (and obviously the call for a refocussing on rehabilitation makes most sense in a culture addicted to incarceration). What is harmful is the implication that you need neuroscience to be able to realise that circumstances and history make some people more able to make responsible choices. Neuroscience just expands our idea of what counts as ‘circumstances’, to include aspects of the internal environment – ie our biology.

However, according to Eagleman, a brave new world of evidence-based justice awaits:

As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories. And we will be better able to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual, rather than maintain the pretence that all brains respond identically to complex challenges and that all people therefore deserve the same punishments.

This is profoundly misleading, giving the impression that the justice system gives the same punishments for the same crimes (which is doesn’t) and that it was only neuroscientific ignorance that forced legal philosophers to create the category of ‘legally responsible’.

Another view is that, the simple idea of legal responsibility was adopted as a deliberate choice, a choice we make hand in hand with that of equality before the law. We do this because as the alternative to legal equality is odious, so the alternative to equality of responsibility is pernicious. The criminal justice system already de facto admits to gradations of responsibility, how exactly does Eagleman imagine that it could be improved by formalising a graded notion of responsibility? Far from crumbling, as Eagleman claims, the criminal justice system is already a compromise between the need to view people as responsible and the recognition that not all choices are equally free. The revolution heralded by Eagleman’s barrage of rhetorical questions and attacks on strawmen is a damp squib. If the neurosciences are going to make a genuine contribution to issues like this, the onus must be on us to engage with existing thought on complicated matters like criminal justice and provide detailed evidence of how neuroscience can inform these existing systems, rather than pretending that new findings in the lab can sweep away thousands of years of cultural and philosophical endeavour.

Link to The Atlantic article, The Brain on Trial

Previously on, Against Neuroethics

They’re Made out of Meat!

“They’re Made Out of Meat” is a short story by Terry Bisson. It’s a great rift of the improbability of the human situation, and particularly relevant to psychologists (e.g. “So … what does the thinking?”)

The full text is here. The story has its own wikipedia page, and there’s a YouTube film here.

Now, for your listening delight Erin Revell and Geraint Edwards, at my request, have recorded the story so I can play parts of it during a lecture. The result was too good not to share, so with Terry Bisson’s permission, here’s a link for the whole thing:

Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat”

(Cross-posted at

Tweets for 2011-07-07

  • Estimates of the totals spent globally on the component processes of scholarly communication and research, #
  • Is there anything interesting to say about neuroethics other than "knowledge of the brain may make us question our ideas of responsibility"? #
  • The Research Digest is dead, long live @ResearchDigest ! RT @christianjarret Hi everyone. I've made this my own personal feed. #
  • Today: Town meeting for BBSRC call on skill acquisition and high performance in sport, in Camden Town, London #
  • DHL have a bizarre idea of how science works (but are obviously keen to bask in it's reflected glory) #
  • Today: sharing the bill with Elizabeth Loftus, and others, talking to prospective University psychology students in Sheffield #
  • My talk title is "Thinking Meat: putting brain and mind together", and is inspired by Terry's Bisson's story #

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