The Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot

This February 14 marked the 25th anniversary of the Pale Blue Dot, an iconic photograph of Earth captured by Voyager 1 at a distance of more than 6 billion kilometres, past the orbit of Neptune. It shows Earth as a tiny pixel enveloped in a beam of sunlight, surrounded by darkness.

In contemplating the significance of this pixel, Carl Sagan authored one of the most stirring passages ever put to paper. The image, together with Sagan’s reflections, has inspired countless artists and scientists alike. (Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy provides some examples).

To my mind, images like this dispel the crude notion that science is a cold-hearted and passionless affair, forever detached from the deeper questions of human life. Some people believe that the deeper questions are properly addressed by religion, and they consider it churlish when a scientist encroaches on what they perceive to be their territory. The message seems to be that scientists ought to keep to their labs and observatories, and leave the task of contemplating the significance of it all to the priests, rabbis, imams, and theologians.

The unspoken assumption in this view is that the religious are somehow better equipped to ponder the human condition, and that the rest of us ought to simply live by the results of their thinking. Quite frankly, this is wrong. Contemplating what it means to be human is not a religious exercise per se; it’s a human exercise. Although the pages of their holy books are purportedly suffused with wisdom, the religious are not necessarily better at this exercise than those of us who do not share their theological commitments.

Personally, I think the Pale Blue Dot and Sagan’s accompanying essay both express insights far more penetrating than those found in the sacred scriptures of the various world religions. You may disagree on that, but you cannot deny that images like this have profoundly enriched intellectual life on this tiny mote of dust we call home.

Tools and Questions

A field of study is not defined by the tools that it uses, but by the questions that it asks. The tools are secondary to the questions. Endel Tulving captured this point well in this interview for Cognitive Neuroscience (2002):

The single most critical piece of equipment is still the researcher’s own brain. All the equipment in the world will not help us if we do not know how to use it properly, which requires more than just knowing how to operate it. Aristotle would not necessarily have been more profound had he owned a laptop and known how to program. What is badly needed now, with all these scanners whirring away, is an understanding of exactly what we are observing, and seeing, and measuring, and wondering about.

Hype, bollocks, and woo

A recent video from Sixty Symbols featured an exasperated Phil Moriarty bemoaning the misuse of the language of physics to make ridiculous New Age woo sound respectable. Unfortunately, physics isn’t the only field in which this happens. Take, for example, the newspaper-generated hype over a recent neuroimaging study on sex differences featured in PNAS. The spurious claims being made on the basis of that study, peddled principally by sensationalist newspaper headlines, have generated untold facepalms from the neuroscience community (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Likewise, the recent story of a neuroscientist who apparently diagnosed himself a psychopath on the basis of a brain scan provoked similar sentiments, captured best in the gif below:


It’s easy (and tempting) to dismiss hype and woo as just that – hype and woo. But to do so would be to ignore the fact that there are people who read this stuff and take it seriously. It’s not without consequence. The damage this produces isn’t always overt; it’s subtle and cumulative. Over time, it distorts the public perception of science (whatever the field). It leads people without an adequate background knowledge to believe that the hype, bollocks, and woo is what psychology, or neuroscience, or physics, etc, really is, and it thus makes them susceptible to accepting all sorts of ridiculous nonsense that bears superficial resemblance to science or some tenuous connection to real scientific work.

I’ve argued previously that scientists need to be politically engaged because science doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s embedded in the fabric of the social world. The same argument applies to cultural engagement also and highlights the importance of good communication. We need people like Neuroskeptic, NeuroBollocks, Neurocritic and others, in all fields, who dispel common misconceptions, tear apart beguiling and vacuous claims, and encourage people to think more critically and deeply about what research findings actually reveal about the world.

On Writing

The act of creating something is almost universally accompanied by certain trepidations. In creating something you are, in effect, laying yourself bare for the world to see. To create is to become vulnerable to critique. Others will judge your work and, despite your best efforts, some may view it unfavourably, even subjecting it to ridicule.

Creating anything therefore requires the courage to move beyond these insecurities and to accept that vulnerability. That’s not to say that such feelings will disappear from the psychological landscape (they are more-or-less permanent fixtures), but they cease to be obstructions to the creative process, which is often messy and haphazard.

Writing doesn’t need to be an arduous undertaking. It can be an adventure. Don’t be afraid to play with words, to experiment. Some things you try won’t work, but others will. So write that first draft, even if you think it’s rubbish. Don’t expect everything you write to be brilliant or eloquent or praise-worthy; some things won’t be. Don’t write for the ‘perfect’ reader; write for a real reader. Don’t wait for the ‘perfect’ words; you’ll be waiting forever. Give yourself credit for bad drafts because at least you’re writing. Good drafts may be gratifying, but there’s much to learn from bad drafts. Keep experimenting.

Why should scientists be politically active?

What happens in the legislative chamber has consequences for what happens in the lab, as the recent US government shutdown aptly demonstrated (1, 2, 3). Yet when scientists set foot on the political stage they seem to attract a great deal of cynicism. Why should scientists become involved in politics? They should keep to their labs, observatories, and clinics, and leave politics to the politicians and pundits.

One reason why scientists should be politically engaged is because science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs in a social, political and economic context. Doing science and doing it well depends, in part, on the factors enmeshed in that context.

Consider the state of science education as an example, particularly the controversy over teaching creationism in classrooms. Scientists have an interest in ensuring that high school students receive a comprehensive and excellent science education because these students will one day have a stake in deciding whether publicly funded science projects are valuable to the community. If they receive a poor education, they may not be in a position to make informed decisions about the value of scientific projects. Consequently, they will elect representatives who hold similar views and who will enact legislation on their behalf that further degrades the quality of science education and restricts funding to scientific projects in the belief that they are worthless.

The story of science is intertwined with the story of humanity. It’s difficult to do good science if people are disparaging your work for spurious reasons, degrading the quality of the science curriculum, and promoting pseudoscience as an alternative worthy of equal acceptance in the general community. Scientists cannot afford to ignore the social realities of life.

That’s a problem for future Homer

“That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.” — Homer J. Simpson

In two sentences The Simpsons summarises what we tell ourselves when we procrastinate. It reflects both our understanding that some future self will have to bear the burden of some task and our prescience that this future self will be dissatisfied by having to deal with problems that our present self could have prevented. We allow small problems to develop into larger, less manageable problems that our future selves struggle to cope with. That’s why, like Homer, we don’t envy our future self. We have knowingly mistreated the poor guy by magnifying the size of the problems he will have to deal with.

The battle between our present and future selves is the topic of discussion in this TED talk by Daniel Goldstein, which I recommend watching. The research Goldstein covers in the talk is also discussed in this blog, which is well worth the read if you found the talk interesting.

Why do we do procrastinate? It’s not as though we lack insight into what will happen if we needlessly delay tasks. Experienced procrastinators are acutely aware of what will happen. Yet it remains incredibly difficult to stay on task. Thoughts of doing something else repeatedly intrude, attention is diverted elsewhere, and we find ourselves making lame excuses for our behaviour.

The most common excuse, at least in my own experience, takes the following form: “Now isn’t the perfect time for…” The allure of this excuse lies in its flexibility. It can be applied to almost any situation at almost any time, which also makes it especially hazardous. It is the ultimate “get out of work” card because the definition of ‘perfect’ is often nebulous and always changing, or if the definition is fixed, then it is fixed in such a way as to preclude any possibility of the conditions for ‘perfect’ everbeing met. When is it ever the ‘perfect’ time to read that paper or to start that assignment? If you wait until you are able to do it ‘perfectly’ then you will never do it at all. Make it happen now.

Psychology and Science

Roughly a year ago, Alex Berezow argued that psychologists should be kicked out of the science club. According to him, psychology is not a legitimate scientific endeavour, and calling it a science only serves to dilute the meaning of the word. It’s not “real science”; it’s merely an unstable edifice of murky and ineffable concepts masquerading in scientific dress.

There are certainly areas of psychology that could benefit from taking this criticism seriously and working to address it. Yet Berezow’s critique was not directed at a particular area of psychological inquiry, but at psychology as a whole. The entire endeavour of inquiring into the nature of the mind is, according to this view, unworthy of being considered a legitimate scientific pursuit. This conclusion should surely worry many psychologists who, up until now, have been working under the apparently false impression that a science of the mind is possible, at least in principle.

The ambitious breadth of Berezow’s critique deserves to be emphasised because it seems to have escaped even him. In declaring all psychology unscientific, Berezow is making a blanket claim that covers every area of psychological inquiry, regardless of how it is studied or what knowledge has been gained. This is incredibly misguided. The methods used in happiness research (Berezow’s example) differ from those used in the study of auditory perception or memory consolidation. And yet, from Berezow’s view, neither is a scientific pursuit. The limitations and imprecisions of one set of measures, in one area of psychological interest (e.g., happiness), is apparently enough for us to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Had Berezow narrowed his criticism to those areas of study where they are most appropriate he would not have raised any eye brows. Indeed, he probably would have been expressing similar concerns to those shared by psychologists working in those areas. But the moment he sought to sink the entire intellectual enterprise on the back of one topic in one area of study was the moment he stretched the argument too far to be credible.

Devising clever ways of probing the workings of the living brain can be challenging. Some tools are far less precise than others. Psychologists are aware of these issues. It’s not as though Berezow has suddenly made the entire field cognisant of something that, up until now, it has either forgotten or ignored. However, the answer is not to abandon the enterprise, but to develop better ways of studying the phenomena of interest.

Critics like Berezow want us to view the limitations of our field as an impenetrable wall. This is a defeatist view from which no new knowledge can spring. Psychologists typically view limitations as something to overcome with the development of better and more sophisticated methodology. Ultimately, that is how any science, psychology included, grows and matures.