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Demolishing Popular Neuroscience Writing

Brrraaaiiinnnsss

I’ve been an avid fan of recent popular science books that delve in to the workings of our brains. Eagerly I’ve been devouring books like ‘Het Slimme Onderbewuste‘ and ‘Wij Zijn Ons Brein‘ as well as English language counterparts such as Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink‘.

So reading this rather excellent demolition of the entire popular neuroscience genre was more than a little uncomfortable, though probably very necessary:

“So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form.”

While I do believe that neuro-scientific endeavours will, eventually, provide us with meaningful (if unpalatable for some) answers about the nature of thought and consciousness, it’s good to remind ourselves that this is a science in its infancy and we shouldn’t let ourselves be carried along by overly optimistic commercially-incentivised book writers.

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  • Filed under: books, science
  • Forsaking my democratic duty

    Tomorrow’s parliament elections in the Netherlands will be the first Dutch national elections that I won’t have voted in since I became eligible to vote at age 18.

    I used to be one of those shrill democracy-thumpers proclaiming that if you didn’t vote, you had no right to complain about politics. Arrogant with conviction, I figured that the Dutch multi-party system always gave someone the chance to vote for a political party they mostly agreed with, and that every citizen had a duty to exercise their democratic right.

    So I’m slightly surprised at myself that in this case, I genuinely don’t think I should vote in these elections. And I’m trying to understand why I feel that way.

    First of all, I don’t live in the Netherlands any more, and I have no intention of returning to my homeland any time soon as anything other than a temporary visitor. It’s not that I hated living in the Netherlands – quite the contrary, I loved my life there and the country has given me much.

    It’s just that I don’t miss it. I miss my family and my friends – I miss them tremendously and I really should keep in touch with them much more often than I actually do – but I don’t miss the country. There are some rather unpalatable aspects of the Dutch national identity that have become much clearer now that I have the luxury of an external perspective. I won’t go in to specifics here – maybe at some stage I’ll write about it in a separate post – but suffice to say that I no longer wholeheartedly embrace my Dutchness.

    Combined with the fact that I don’t have a significant personal stake in the outcomes of Dutch elections, and much of my reluctance to vote is explained.

    Secondly, the direction the Dutch political debate is heading towards is one that I vehemently disagree with. In years past, it seemed that Dutch politics was more or less a rather stately affair. Politics wasn’t vicious, debates weren’t full of personal attacks, and parties were not personality cults.

    None of that is true any more. And I think that’s a Very Bad Thing. The Americanisation of Dutch politics is, frankly, revolting. And worst of all, on the whole people think this is a commendable trend. ‘It makes politics more accessible‘, they say, ‘it encourages public participation‘.

    It probably does, and that’s the problem. For public participation in politics to be commendable, it requires an informed public. A public that understands the issues and uses reason and empathy to guide its electoral decisions.

    Unfortunately, the Dutch public is, on the whole, dreadfully misinformed. And that means that, as a people, the Dutch make horrendously bad decisions when it comes to electing politicians.

    Additionally, I don’t think wild-eyed propagandists are necessarily the right type of people to govern the country. Foamy-mouthed critics are fine on the sidelines, but that’s where they should stay. You just shouldn’t give any real power to someone whose raison d’etre is finding the nastiest populist sentiments – racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia – and capitalising on them. That’s a recipe for national disaster.

    As a counter-argument, I can think of one reason why I should vote in the Dutch elections: my family and friends live there, and I care a great deal about what happens to them. I want nothing but the best for them, and I should vote for a party whose policies I feel would benefit them most.

    But, thanks to my indecisive musings, the election ballot is still sitting on my kitchen table, 30 hours before it should be at the international electoral offices in The Hague. Barring a very expedient (and expensive) FedEx courier, it’s simply going to be too late to be counted.

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  • Filed under: adamus, politics
  • Deconstructing Raymond Tallis

    Raymond Tallis is, at first glance, a bit of a contradiction.

    A bit of background first. Tallis is a philosopher and a prominent mover in British Humanist circles. A staunch atheist, he is a regular contributor to New Humanist magazine, in which pages I first learned of him.

    In addition to being a fierce critic of religion, Raymond Tallis is also, as it turns out, a fierce critic of science. Or, specifically, of certain aspects of neuroscience. Which is ironic, as he used to be a neuroscientist.

    Tallis rejects the reductionist perspective – increasingly embraced by neuroscientists – that the brain and human consciousness are the same thing, that consciousness is inextricably linked to neural activity in the brain. He even devoted an entire book to this argument, titled Aping Mankind, in which he attacks ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.

    What Tallis actually attacks, however, is the simplified portrayal of neuroscientific discoveries in the media, and the sweeping statements journalists like to make in eye-catching headlines. But Tallis fails to make that distinction, instead preferring to use this convenient straw man to criticise all of neuroscience and what he perceives as its reductionism with regards to consciousness and free will (or lack thereof).

    Prolific in his criticisms, Tallis however fails to offer any opposing theory as to what consciousness and free will then really are, if not material properties of the brain.

    Now I’m not one to denounce a critic for failing to provide an alternative view (that would be rather hypocritical of me) nor for the viciousness of his criticisms (again, pot, kettle & black), but what strikes me most is that Tallis’s criticisms fly in the face of an ever growing mountain of scientific evidence.

    Tallis is essentially rejecting empirical scientific evidence without providing any counter-evidence. That, to me, seems a rather untenable position, especially for someone who once declared science to be “the greatest achievement of that community of minds called the human race”. He is intent on maintaining the specialness of human consciousness, without any supporting evidence.

    Considering the fact that Tallis is a ridiculously intelligent man and a defender of scientific rationalism in general, this all combines in to a rather contradictory picture of the man.

    Or does it?

    Apparently Tallis at the age of 15 suffered from great depths of personal despair, which is not particularly uncommon in adolescence. He overcame this depression when he discovered philosophy, which provided him with “a sense of overwhelming joy at the complexity of the world.”

    Aha. Suddenly it all makes sense.

    Philosophy, Tallis’s intellectual soulmate, is at its core an embrace of the concept that fundamental truths of the universe can be discovered by thought alone. Philosophy has put all its eggs in to the basket of conscious thought, as that is the source from which its knowledge springs.

    And that was perfectly fine, right up until science – and neuroscience in particular – started shooting galaxy-sized holes in to the presumed superiority of consciousness and free will.

    Neuroscience has not (yet) disproved the existence of free will, nor has it managed to explain what consciousness is.
    But the science has made massive strides towards finding answers to those pivotal questions. And the direction of this progress points towards an absence of free will and a rather peripheral role of consciousness in the bigger picture of our mental faculties.

    That, I believe, is the true axe Raymond Tallis has to grind. Like so many philosophers he has placed conscious thought on an artificial pedestal, and like many he is seeing that pedestal undermined by the continued progress of biological science.

    So in an effort to preserve his adolescent and enduring love affair with philosophy, he rejects any attack on the sanctity of conscious thought. He opposes the materialist notion that we are our brains, regardless of the scientific evidence.

    You’d almost feel sorry for the man. So keen to cling to his deeply entrenched cognitive biases, he cannot face the possibility that his beloved philosophy is perhaps nothing but a deeply flawed emanation from our imperfect, materialist brains. And he will go to any length of shrieking irrationality to preserve this personal delusion.

    I suppose it just proves once more that even the brightest among us are not the perfect superhumans we’d like them to be.

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  • Filed under: philosophy, science
  • Technophilic Vacuity

    I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.

    But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.

    TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.

    In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:

    “Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

    In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:

    “When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”

    I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.

    It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.

    It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:

    “The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”

    This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.

    A Worrying Conviction

    Today two people were sentenced to life in prison for murdering a young woman. And I believe this is a very worrying conviction.

    Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed are believed to have killed their daughter Shafilea in 2003 as an ‘honour killing’. The problem is that, from what the media has reported, this conviction is based entirely on a single eyewitness testimony.

    One of the couple’s other children told authorities, seven years after Shafilea’s death, that she witnessed her parents kill her sibling. Whether or not that is true, we will never know.

    Memories are fickle and unreliable things. They are created in an instant, and they are nearly always inaccurate. People believe that what they remember is what actually happened, while in fact what we remember is often a different version of the events as they transpired.

    Memories are malleable, ephemeral, and eternally revised. Every time you remember something, you are actually re-creating the memory – and often change it in the process.

    Memories not only change over time, they’re also inaccurate the moment they’re created. We don’t remember actual events – we remember our own biased, coloured versions of events. And our perceptions, much like our memories, are incredibly unreliable.

    Memories don’t even need to be based on actual events. They can be created without the person ever experiencing anything even remotely close to it. A story you heard, a dream you had, a TV show you watched – all of these things can lead to memories that you will swear are true, while in fact they’re nothing but pure fabrications of your mind.

    So I’m pretty sure that whatever Shafilea’s sister told in court what happened, and what actually happened on the night Shafilea disappeared, are two entirely and vastly different things.

    No doubt there was a jury that was entirely unaware of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and I suspect there was not a small degree of bias present in many jurors – a result of the ceaseless barrage from the tabloid media distrusting anything that even remotely reeks of immigrants and Islam.

    I don’t know if Shafilea’s parents killed her or not. That’s not the issue I’m addressing. The issue is that the jury should have recognised they don’t know either.

    We have a justice system that allows evidence of incredibly flimsy substance to serve as the pivotal aspect of a prosecution’s case, and ignorant juries to uncritically accept it, with life-altering repercussions for all involved.

    And that, I believe, can only be a bad thing.

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  • Filed under: life, science
  • Bright Does Not Make Right

    Last night I came across a great article explaining how smart people are just as susceptible to bias and false beliefs as anyone – and, in fact, how smart people are more adept at justifying these false beliefs:

    “Smart people will usually be able to brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right and, due to their thinking abilities, can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right.”
    - The Dangers of Being Smart

    This fits perfectly with my own thoughts on members of Mensa, where I found many people with astounding IQs clinging to horrendously stupid beliefs:

    I was appalled at how many Mensans are in to what we collectively term ‘New Age’ spirituality. From astrologers to energy healers, from psychics to homeopaths, Mensa boasts a frightening abundance of people who have thrown every last remnant of rationality and common sense overboard and have committed themselves entirely to plainly ridiculous ideas.

    Not only that, I got the distinct impression that these people felt that their membership of Mensa – their high IQ – was a vindication of their beliefs. “I’m smart,” they seem to argue, “so what I believe is right.”

    Now I am of course keenly aware that I’m not immune to this conceit either, and that there’s a strong possibility my own beliefs are equally flawed and that I use my own intellect to justify them, even when faced with valid criticism.

    Unfortunately, being aware of bias and prejudice does not make you immune to it. That’s something we’d all do well to keep in mind, I reckon.

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  • Filed under: adamus, life, propaganda
  • Prometheus – my thoughts and theories

    I saw Prometheus yesterday. It’s definitely a film that needs to be properly digested.

    Below my thoughts on what I liked, what I didn’t like, and some theories about events in the film and possible answers to some of the questions arising from the film’s plot.

    SPOILER ALERT. If you have not yet seen Prometheus, don’t read any further. Read the rest of this entry »

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  • Filed under: film, sci-fi
  • Adamus

     Adamus
    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

    Identity 2.0

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