Pop science


Our society has a problem with the dissemination of information about science. There are the scientific journals that are far, far to specialized for anyone outside that particular area of science to read and understand, even if they have a fairly good general education that included sciences. Then there are popular science books and articles written by scientists (and some good journalists) for the lay public. The problem with these is that they are too rare, far too rare. And finally there are articles and books written by people who are basically ignorant of the subject matter and are out to shock, titillate, entertain or discredit. Quite often these books/articles use dichotomies in a pretend conflict for effect. The rule appears to be ‘hang your article on a controversy’. An example is discussed by Ledoux (here). It is the left-brain verses right-brain fake dichotomy that has annoyed him.

Here are some pop science ideas that bother me. See any the these and you know that the author is either ignorant of the subject or cutting corners.

  1. nurture verses nature: We cannot separate genetics for environment in any sort of useful quantitative way; they are too interwoven, interdependent and an multifaceted in their interactions. This is a political football and not a scientific question. Everything about you is controlled by genetics and, at the same time, everything about you is controlled by your environment – and this is not impossible. Genetics and environment are not in competition.

  2. The gene for ‘x’: There is no gene for aggression, for mathematics, for autism etc. Genes control things like a type of cell migration which in turn (with other genes and environmental factors in the womb) produces the anatomical structure of the brain. That in turn, with other genes and environmental factors, gives tendencies toward ‘x’. How genetics works is not rocket science – it is more complicated than rocket science. We can have a gene for a particular enzyme because genes code for proteins, but not for disliking spinach.

  3. Mind verses matter: Dualists are now very rare in philosophy and even rarer in neuroscience. Forget about some immaterial mind stuff. It is a dead as vitalism.

  4. Brain verses body: The brain and the rest of the body are not separate systems. What is happening in the brain effects the body beyond just the muscles and glands. And what is happening in the body effects the brain beyond just the sense organs. The ’embodied mind’ is pretty much accepted.

  5. The reptilian brain/the primitive brain: We do not have some unchanged ancient part of our brain. We share some anatomy with all other vertebrates but none of it has remained unchanged by evolution. Various structures in the hind-, mid- and fore-brain work together although they arose in evolution over time with the hind- first and the fore-brain last. It is like saying that the heart is more primitive than the lungs because hearts are evolutionarily older. We do not have shark hearts or reptile brains.

  6. Left brain verses right brain: The two hemispheres are connected and work together, very closely together. The only time you have a two brains is when the two hemispheres are surgically separated.

  7. Conscious mind verses unconscious mind: This is the big one as far as this blog is concerned. We do not have two minds – we have one. Most of what the mind does is not in our awareness – we are unconscious of it. But some of what the mind does we are aware of – we are conscious of it. We have an unconscious mind and consciousness of some of the products of that mind (perception, cognition, intention etc.) To read some pop science you would think that the unconscious was some hidden evil trying to undermine our best efforts.

  8. Freewill verses determinism: I think most neuroscientists do not accept either concept but instead envision a complex decision making and control process in the brain which is neither free or determined as those words are ordinarily used in this context. (But it is still a question for some philosophers.)

  9. Humans verses other animals: This is sometimes said as, ‘humans are unique’. Doh! All species are unique. It is only natural that we are more interested in what makes us unique than what makes fruit bats unique. We share the basics with other animals. We share the forerunners of our most typical abilities with our closest animal relatives. There is no reason to think that other animals do not think, feel, communicate etc. even if we do these things much better then they do.

One thought on “Pop science

  1. <p>I think the fundamental problem is that real science, while really interesting, is complex and hard to explain to laypeople. Scientists find science interesting, but only because they spend their lives learning about it.</p>
    <p>A skilled science writer can explain real science and make it interesting to laypeople, but it’s a skill, an art really. Whereas any half decent writer can write a book that reads well and seems exciting but only because it’s based on simplified and crap “science”. To do it well you need to be able to write well, <i>and</i> understand the science, but few people have both those skills.</p>
    JK: I could not agree more. Unfortunately for me, I am not as good a writer as I wish I was. I do enjoy your blog.

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