26 July 2019

“Follow the rules like everyone else” is not punishment

Because I curate a collection of stings and hoaxes, I have been following the so-called “grievance studies” affair by Helen Pluckrose, James Lindasy, and assistant professor Peter Boghossian (the only academic of the trio). They sent hoax papers to journals. Many people have sent hoax papers to journal (hence my anthology), but Pluckrose and colleagues described it as an experiment and published it.

Inside Higher Education reports:

Boghossian was ordered last year to take research compliance training; he has not yet done so, the letter states. Because Boghossian has not completed Protection of Human Subjects training, he is forbidden from engaging in research involving human subjects or any other sponsored research.

In other words, “Follow the same rules as everyone else.”

Just by way of comparison, and to give you an idea of what research with humans normally entails, I did an online survey for a couple of research papers (here’s one). That’s less intrusive than what Boghossian and colleagues did. I had to:

  • Go through “research with human subjects” training.
  • Submit a proposal to an institutional review board and have it approved.
  • Include detailed descriptions of the potential benefits and risks to anyone viewing the survey.

So “Take training before you do more research” is what anyone should do.

But some reporting makes it sound like Boghossian is being treated arbitrarily (emphasis added).

My prediction is that this is going to become a talking point in the American culture wars, with some trying to paint Boghossian’s letter as a dire consequence that has a chilling effect on academic freedom, is political correctness gone mad, continue buzzwords until exhausted.

Unfortunately, the language of the letter Boghossian got was pretty severe, which will contribute to the impression that the consequences for Boghossian are bad.

And it is bad, of course. It’s embarrassing to get called out for your actions and told you didn’t do the right thing by this institution and your profession.

But I bet a lot of people wish their punishment for something was a letter saying, “Follow the rules.” I’m sure some teenagers would like that more then being grounded.

23 July 2019

The failure of neuroscience education

In every field of science, there are certain basic facts. These are the facts that if you get them wrong, mark you as naïve at best and foolish at worst.

In chemistry, one of those facts might be that everything is made of atoms.

In astronomy, one of these facts might be that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way round.

In geography, geology, and astronomy, one of those facts might be that the earth is round and not flat.

These basic sorts of facts are often used to assess people’s scientific literacy. We consider it important that people be educated in these.

But neuroscience has failed in conveying its most basic facts. Case in point:

The myth that “We only use ten percent of our brain.”

People believe this. I mean, they really believe it.

I’ve heard multiple people mention it at public scientific lectures. I’ve answered dozens of questions about this on Quora, where some version of it crops up every few days.

And that damn Luc Besson movie didn’t help.

From a neuroscientist’s point of view, saying “We only use ten percent of our brain” is as big an error as saying, “The earth is flat.”

A few moments of thought should show why it can’t be true. We never hear a physician say things like, “Well, the bullet went through your skull, but luckily, it went through the 90% of you brain you never use.” It has no basis in reality.

If you go to the Society for Neuroscience to see what scientists say about this, you might find their  outreach page. There, have to navigate to their “Brain Facts” page (which should be “About Brain Facts”, not the actual landing page for “Brain Facts”), dig down to their “Core concepts” and under “Your complex brain” you can read:

There are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain, all of which are in use.

So the leading professional society for neuroscience counters the 10% brain myth with a sentence fragment that is hard to find and weakly worded.

If I was leading neuroscience education, my goal would be to make, “We use 100% of our brain” the sort of bedrock scientific fact that we expect people should know.

Postscript: The 10% myth probably dates back to 1936, when American writer Lowell Thomas wrote the foreword to one of the best all-time sellers, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Thomas was summarizing an idea of psychologist William James: that people have unmet potential. Most of us could learn Russian, but don’t. We could learn to play a musical instrument, but don’t. We could learn how to repair a 1963 MGB sports car, but don’t.

Thomas added a falsely precise percentage: “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten per cent of his latent mental ability.” Somewhere along the line, “mental ability” became “brain.” This isn’t surprising, since the notion that “Thoughts come from our brain” is a scientific fact that is widely known. That’s our “Sun is at the center of the solar system” fact.

External links

Do we really only use ten percent of our brain?

“Teach the controversy” image from a super cool T-shirt from Amorphia.

20 July 2019

A sad story about the first moon landing

(This post contains material that some may find distressing; specifically, suicide.)

I’m too young to remember the moon landing.

(Continues below the fold.)

19 July 2019

More multimedia: Crustacean pain and nociception talk

Last year, I gave a talk at Northern Vermont University about crustacean pain. It was recorded by the local public access television station, Green Mountain Access TV, and is now up on Vimeo.

Current Topics in Science Series, Zen Faulkes from Green Mountain Access TV on Vimeo.

Big thanks to Leslie Kanat for hosting me and for Green Mountain Access TV for recording it!


Photograph of microphoneCorina Newsome! This is your fault! You have to go and say:

Can we get scientific journal articles on audiobook? Please?

There is a long thread that follows about possible solutions. But two things emerge:

  1. Software to read papers aloud automatically doesn’t do a very good job.
  2. Quite a few people want these.

Following my long standing tradition of, “What the heck, I’ll have a go,” I’d like to present my first audiopaper! It’s a reading of my paper from last year on authorship disputes.

I decided to do this because I wanted to get more mileage out of a mic I’d bought for a podcast interview (forthcoming), and because I still have this discussion in the back of my head.

I often tell students, “Always plot the data”, since different patterns can give same summary stats. How could I help visually impaired students do something similar?

And the answer is that while there have been experiments in sonification of data, it seems to have stayed experimental and never moved into simple practical use. It got me thinking about how little we do for visually impaired researchers.

I picked my authorship disputes paper for a few reasons.

  1. There are no bothersome figures to worry about describing.
  2. The topic probably has wider appeal than my data driven papers.
  3. The paper is open access, so I wouldn’t run afoul of any copyright issues.
  4. The paper is reasonably short.

I wrote an little into and a little outro. I pulled out my mic, fired up Audacity, and got reading. My first problem was finding a position for the mic where I could still see the computer screen so I could read from my paper.

I broke it into sections (slightly more sections than headings the paper). I think it took between one and two hours to read the whole thing. It’s not quite a single take, but it’s close.

I’ve since figured out that I can probably do longer sessions, because I worked out how to identify sections I want to edit out because I stumbled or mispronounced words. After I screw up a sentence, I snap my fingers three times. This creates three sharp spikes in the playback visualization that is easy to see. That makes it easy to find the mistake, then edit the gaffe and the finger snaps out of the recording.

Screen shot of sound recording in Audacity comparing speech and finger snaps.

I learned that it can be surprisingly hard to say “screenplay” correctly. And I curse my past self who wrote tongue twisters like “collaborative creator credit.”

Editing the recording also took about an hour. Besides cutting out my stumbles and finger snaps, I cut out some longer pauses and occasional little background sounds. The recording was a bit quiet, so I increased the gain a few decibels.

Will I do more of these? It completely depends on the response to this experiment. I probably picked my single easiest paper to read and turn into an audio recording. It would only get harder from here. And I have other projects that I should be working on.

If people like this effort, I’ll see about doing more, maybe with better production. (I wanted to put in some music, but that was taking too long for a one off.)

External links

Resolving authorship disputes by mediation and arbitration on Soundcloud