Friday, February 2, 2018

is the use of torture gaining academic credibility?

in the last post i said i would talk about a 13-year-old story, about my argument with Stan Dehaene. but something relevant and interesting happened on social media, which makes me feel i should write about this first

long story short: @david_colquhoun is a highly influential pharmacologist, a fellow of the royal society. he made a few remarks on twitter, that much of consciousness science is futile and unfalsifiable. that has gotten a couple of my colleagues worked up. since i work in the US, i have heard this kind of accusations often, and understand where they are coming from. not that i think they are fair, but i pointed out it is true that the popular media often portrait us in unflattering lights; works and ideas discussed there often represent the least rigorous of us. so it is understandable why an outsider may think we are all idiots.

this has gotten my friend Anil Seth to write this excellent piece, to push back on a pop article titled "The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility". perhaps what is even more spectacular, however, is the 'meta-push back' on social media (as Dave Chalmers put it). 

the discussion has gotten confusing, but the point as i see it is simple. you can 'define' academic credibility whichever way you like. but if we allow ourselves to cite a few 'prominent' scientists' metaphysical views as support to mean that certain views are gaining 'academic credibility', we will soon enough to be able to say all sorts of crazy stuff is gaining credibility, e.g. climate change denial, anti-semitism, homophobia, use of torture (there *are* psychologists who have done work on this, very prominent ones no less), etc. just because they are scientists doesn't mean everything they say is remotely warranted by the science they do. (i'm focusing on the use of quotes of scientists here; philosophers are a bit different - in some cases it is their jobs to consider far fetched stuff; when we quote scientists as such we are implying it is a scientifically informed opinion).

on top of that, there is this particular worry: in other fields 'prominence' is usually achieved via peer review. but our peer group in the field of consciousness is small. historical reasons mean that many senior scholars achieved their status not via work done directly in the area; their work on consciousness may not be particularly well liked /respected in the field at all. so citing a few 'prominent' scientists' opinion on consciousness is really dangerous business. when it is clear that the overall consensus of the field does not take a view seriously, to claim that it has gain 'credibility' via a few quotes from a few 'serious guys' is just wrong on so many levels. 

all i can say is, this point has probably fallen on many deaf ears. i understand philosophers have different concerns. above all, they probably don't appreciate how this can reflect very badly on the field as a whole, affecting funding, job prospects for junior scientists. they may not care how a scientific giant like Colquhoun sees us. 

e.g. in response Dave Chalmers insisted he didn't think the our image in the popular media affects our funding and jobs. as someone who has seen how things work first hand, and have to actually participate in these competitions, i can only beg to differ. jobs and funding opportunities are often created for a research topic. in the past decades i've seen many jobs and funding opportunities opened specifically for social neuroscience, neuroeconomics, etc. in the US at least, i don't see such openings for consciousness. and i'm not surprised. these decisions are made by senior colleagues who are often outside of the field, and i know how they think of us in general.

Dave rightly pointed out that if we are putting out a lot of good, rigorous work, we should do fine in the end. but our field remains small. so we're back to this problem - how do we grow, since we have to, if our popular image does not really reflect who we are, and is instead hurting our very capacity for growth? 

Tobias Schlicht usefully suggseted this is all just a science politics game, making impact via media / popular influences. if some 'prominent' scholars didn't make that huge buzz back in the 90s, the field as we know it may well not have existed. that's exactly right. the modern reincarnation of our field was created out of sheer stardom. but as we mature as a science, should we still operate the same way? should there be a point where the consensus within our professional society matters more than the opinions of a few 'authorative' figures?

in honesty, i really think it is fine that people entertain far-fetched metaphysical views. they are totally entitled to do that. but the question is whether these subjective viewpoints should dominate our public image, making funding & policy decisions directly or indirectly on our behalf etc, via their 'prominent' status.

to some, maybe stardom & authority will always matter. i once asked an emminent philosopher a simple technical question, and his reply was essentially that: i don't know, but i recently went to a really fancy & exclusive boat trip sponsored by some wealthy tycoon, and many famous people there agreed with me.

in this age of open science, let this naive scientific millenial, a first-generation high school graduate no less, say this: we don't appreciate this arcane way of donig things anymore.

***
ps - a friend pointed out that this piece could be mis-read. the arguments here are intended to target those who claim / give the impression that science increasingly supports panpsychism. i totally respect the philosophical panpsychists; as i've said elsewhere in this blog if not for Dave Chamlers i wouldn't be here doing what i'm doing in the first place. and these arguments are also not targetted at IIT and its proponents either. i have elsewhere argued against them, but that's that. here i'm talking in general about the danger of pretending something is supported by science when it is not. e.g. when i say certain senior scholars' work may not be respected in the field of coz i wasn't thinking of Christof or Giulio specifically. they are veterans in the field. .... guess i'll have to clarify it in a future blogpost further, probably On Combat 3 or something

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