The recent media flap over the very public dissent of a group of European neuroscientists (now grown to an international effort including US researchers) over the European Commission’s funding of the Human Brain Project raises a number of interesting questions. Among them is the timing of the criticism and the sudden willingness to voice against at least 15 years of neuro-hype. Why so little so late? The critical comments are not saying anything new or surprising – there have always been disagreements about how best to understand the non-linear dynamic properties of the brain and nervous system operating across scales from nanometers to meters and from microseconds to years – but the letter-signing campaign is more public than what typically passes for scientific critique these days: raised eyebrows and pointed comments, soto voce, around the conference coffee urn.
As all academic scientists know – there have been and will be schools of thought that advocate for a particular scientific point of view. In the purest cases these divides are about the science. Too often the reality is that these squabbles are a mix of strongly held beliefs about what is and is not “good” science and efforts to grab and control resources. For many of us connected to academic neuroscience there are decades old conversations about the “right” way to do neuroscience. There was the Mid-century Modern battle between the “soups” (neurochemists) and “sparks” (electrophysiologists). There is the tale of the wrangling of BAPtists (adherents to the B-amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s Disease) and the Tau-ists (who back the rival protein, Tau). And of course there is the “molecules rule” club versus the “it’s the circuit” fans. Perhaps most importantly there is the “once we know how every neuron is wired to every other neuron it will all be revealed” believers versus the “it’s got to be more complicated than that” skeptics. At heart, however, we know the truth lies in all these different camps. So really, it the age old human tendency for tribalism and treasure.
In the subfield of cognitive neuroscience there is the ongoing skirmishes among the functional imagers who 1) brain map (the brain as metaphor camp where places become functions), 2) promulgate “seeing is believing” and merge complex tasks with “imaging” and in the end offering little more than yes, the brain does it, and 3) criticize of mapping and hyping. In the early days, the critics tended to pick methodological battles allowing the true believers to scoff at their concerns as nit-picking. The big thinkers were studying charm, love for one’s pet, and the power of pop music. The small-minded could worry about hemodynamics, statistics, and physics. Unfortunately, the merely serious scientists trying to make modest advances in our understanding of how the brain works mostly stayed out of the fray even when things just became downright silly. After all, the modern imaging tools were garnering attention and dollars for neuroscience – and everyone’s boat was floating.
Sometime in the early 1990’s – I colloquially credit the PR advisors to the Decade of the Brain – the idea that scientists should be tough on one another kind of went out the window. Enthusiasm and optimism for all findings regardless of their importance or reliability became the new norm. A united front was requisite. Serious scientific disagreements were reduced to in-family bickering – criticism, when voiced, had to be minor. The rising tide could not be jeopardized. Neuroscience morphed to some pop-construction called “brain science” and seemed to be everywhere answering every question. Education, criminality, pesky adolescent behavior, political party affiliation, why we crave chocolate – there was simply no question brain science wasn’t poised to answer – or at least that the tool of brain imaging wasn’t poised to answer.
But recently, there seems to be growing dissatisfaction with the float all boats strategy. Increasingly special interests have begun to advocate for targeted rising tides that floats only certain boats. The unity of the Decade of the Brain is fraying – we now have the Decade of MY Brain. In other words – depending on what tribe you belong to (molecules, circuits, systems, images) there is a return to beliefs that there is a “right” kind of neuroscience – the right spatial scale, the right temporal scale, the right model organisms, and for each scientist – the right pedigree.
Maybe this is an advance. Maybe it will make it OK to be critical. Maybe. What do you think?