Monday, February 5, 2018

on combat, part 2; my argument with Stan Dehaene over 13 years ago

.... i was a young postdoc then. like, relatively young even for a postdoc. i was 25. and that's just after 3-4 years of living in an English-speaking country.

some uber-rich people / expats will tell u that Hong Kong people speak English. in reality if you are the average people, outside of the classroom, the most you ever hear are the occasional single English words inserted in Cantonese banters. my English was... ok. or maybe i could even dare say, good, by the standard of a local Hong Kong student. i could talk. but man, it was tiring to talk all day in English. so... that was what i was saying in a previous post. when i figured that you can ask tough questions after talks, or just talk about science, it was a great relief.  instead of not talking at all, to be point of having my office-mates thinking i was anti-social, finally i could interact with people in English! it was just way way way easier than talking about soap operas that i haven't seen, or jokes that i wouldn't ever get, in a pub. you could even read the stuff to prepare before hand~

so in 2005 i had already been living in England for 3-4 years, and was used to that way of talking - always arguing about science. i don't have much of other sorts of vocabulary, frankly. it was ASSC9 (the meetig of the only professional society for scientific studies of consciousness), in Caltech. it was my first time in LA, my current 'home', when i first met people like Christof Koch, Frank Tong, Nao Tsuchiya, Stan Dehaene, Alva Noe, Giulio Tononi, Bruno Breitmeyer etc

i won the James Prize, for a paper that really wasn't that good, in hindsight. i was to subsequently stop doing any of this 'Libet clock' stuff. but still, the paper remains my most cited to date. well at least i get to tell people that i published one of my least favorite papers in Science~

Stan was the president, or president-elect, or something, of ASSC. so he gave a presidential address, talking about how his neuroscience experiments supported the global workspace view. some of you are too young too know, some just don't remember. but back then, this neuronal global workspace thing was huge. it's like, the shining light. it still is, to my mind.

straight away, after his presidential lecture, i gave my James talk. it wasn't exactly prepared or intended as such, but i ended up spending the whole hour criticizing Stan's work, occasionally using the very same figures he had just presented to illustrate what was wrong. the main arguments are summarized here. and then there is a bit of this.

the written works linked above were, of coz, a lot more toned down. but with jetlag, and just winning a prize and everything, on stage it just went straight to my head. and i've always improvised too much in my talks.... i was sheer hostile. it was not really very professional.

i don't think i ever apologized to Stan per se. (sorry, Stan!). but to his credit, even right after the talk, he spent time discussing with me, taking my points seriously. and later on, when i was visiting Paris to do another project, he invited me to give a talk in his lab. he even cited my work, and talked about it positively, in his later papers as well as in his book.

i'd like to think my challenge to the global workspace view has made it stronger. that it could withstand challenges like that is a sign that something is right about it. i had really thought, when i controlled for those performance confounds i was obsessed with, all the prefrontal activations would go away! but they didn't. i've been on the other side to know what the arguments are.

but in any case,  above all i think the field's tolerance to my junenvile behavior is a reflection of its strength too. there is never ever a justification to talk so aggressively & dismissively to colleagues in the way i did. but on the whole, we deal with criticisms objectively, constructively. we take what is useful, and make the most out of it. we realize our limitations, and try to do better. we try our best to not take things personally, becoz there's just no point in doing so. this is how we roll. always has been. 

in fact, i still stand by some of my arguments then too. i still don't fully agree with the global workspace view. but -

thanks, Stan, for everything, and also for everything you've done for the field.

it is in this light that i think people should read Dehaene, Lau, Kouider (2017) Science.

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