i’ll tell you why there’s no neuroscience blogosphere

You’ll have to trust me that I say this from a place of love, but there is no neuroscience blogosphere because what you think about the brain is stupid.

There is no neuroscience blogosphere because you are so embarrassingly eager, and wide-eyed, and curious, and credulous… nothing you say about the brain makes any sense and it makes us neuroscientists very uncomfortable to listen to you talk about it.

It’s not your fault. “You” are a layperson, a scholar, well-read, clever, astute… you may even have earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience. But for reasons largely out of your control, the things you have to say about the brain are invariably, appallingly, even curiously, incorrect.

Do you know someone who studies the brain? Ask them this — when they are in a bar, and someone asks them what they do for a living, do they tell the truth? And if they do tell the truth, do they tell it immediately and eagerly? Or do they briefly skim a mental flipbook of alternative lives, flailing to think of a career so boring that it invites no follow-up questions? Ask them.

People read about neuroscience because they glimpse the opportunity to understand why they are who they are. They get excited about what they learn, and they try to do normal things with that knowledge — making connections, building schemas, changing their behavior, discussing, theorizing… but there’s a problem. The available information is often so shoddy, exaggerated, overblown and oversimplified; the shelf life of conventional wisdom is so short and variable; and garbage research is so often polished and spun and pushed to the front of public discourse, that the poor suckers really don’t have anything of reliable value to work with.

So when normal, intelligent adults try to process the information they gather about the brain, their tools, which serve them well in other fields of inquiry, fail them. They assemble mangled theories out of ill-fitting metaphors mistaken for facts, science layered carelessly with philosophy and spirituality, some good science , some crappy science, and emerge with ruddy cheeks and a firmer footing on the earth itself. Man’s true dominion over the unknown at last is nigh.

So when someone shares with me something that “they know” about the brain, I just can’t stomach it anymore. I can’t look at another tattoo of a dopamine molecule. I can’t choose between the variously unsatisfying answers to the question, “Now does the hippocampus count as part of the reptilian brain, or the mammalian brain?” I never volunteer for these conversations, but when I was a neuroscientist they found me again and again and again.

Now, before you indict me as a snob, (and perhaps as a simple expansion on Calhoun’s reason #4), I have a second reason not to engage with you in public conversations about brains. I’m 100% sure  that I am not exempt from the criticisms I have just leveled against you. The greenhorn’s grin may have faded from my face ages ago, but after 13 years of learning and unlearning and relearning I have no confidence in anything that I “know” about the brain. Or at least how it works. I’d be happy to gather up a bunch of Ramon y Cajal’s sketches with you, and just sit quietly with our hands in our laps and admire them. Don’t speak. No that’s one man, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. And I said don’t speak. Now you’ve ruined it.

Shoot, I’m usually just hoping that the literature I used to justify my study stays current through the 18 months it takes to get my paper submitted. The last thing I want to do is to poke my nose out into the blogosphere and learn that my premises are stale, to find out that last week’s best practice is today’s voodoo correlation, to notice that conventional wisdom is shifting, again, on just what it is that the amygdala does. Or the cerebellum. Or dopamine. Just spare me, please.

Neuroscience is young, small, raw, and unstable, especially compared to a field like economics. When we talk to each other honestly about what we know (and don’t know) and how it all fits together (or doesn’t), we do it in hushed voices, lying on the carpet under our desks in the lab at night with the lights turned off clutching tumblers of bourbon. We do it in hushed, self-conscious monologues to our role models when we meet them at conferences. We do it, brazenly, in front of faculty committees, because they force us to in order to graduate. We don’t do it in a blogosphere, where you and your sincere, innocent, blameless, gawking interest can listen in, and sophomorically, grotesquely, you can respond.

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11 thoughts on “i’ll tell you why there’s no neuroscience blogosphere

  1. I agree with everything you say, but I don’t see what it has to do with blogging. Many neuroscientists do blog. Most of them, I think, blog precisely because they feel like you do… and in a way, you’re now one of us!

    • Absolutely, with the emphasis I saw in the neuroecologist’s post being the difference between bloggers blogging and a blogosphere creating a community of discourse. I have no hesitation to tell you all a cool story, but engaging in a back-and-forth often takes more patience and kindness!

      • OK, but what’s to stop there being a community of critical discourse?

        As I’ve said, what you write about neuroscientists is all good, up until the part about the situation making people not want to engage on blogs. That bit just doesn’t ring true to me.

        I do know lots of neuroscientists who don’t read neuroscience blogs, but it’s not for the reason you suggest, it is just… blogs are not their thing. The proof of that is that as far as I can tell they don’t read any blogs.

        Your argument seems to posit a population of neuroscientists who are into online discussions except when they’re about the brain. That doesn’t ring true to me.

      • Well, I speak from my perspective. I can’t give you an estimate of the proportion of neuroscientists I represent. I am a long-time lurker. I’ve read all of you for years, “always meant” to start my own blog, but probably never even posted a comment. Maybe once or twice? Tops?

        Futher, there is no GOOD reason why I never started my own blog and jumped in and joined the conversation. I’ve been studying the brain for 13 years, I am a good casual writer, etc. I have the necessary knowledge, opinions, ability, even the _desire_ to do so… so why didn’t I?

        I really can’t speak at all, in terms of a model, to why there isn’t a “blogosphere”, or even whether there “is one” or “not.” Starting with the prior provided by neuroecologist’s post that there isn’t one, I can give insight into why I haven’t contributed to one, to date. I might be an extreme weirdo, and this is some uninvited oversharing, or I could be representative of some non-trivial population. That’s the fun in anecdotes, I guess. Maybe we’ll find out more as we go on

  2. P.S. When I say “I don’t see what it has to do with blogging”, that would be better put as, I don’t see what it’s got to do with not blogging.

  3. Phys says:

    The problem with neuroscience is that neuroscientists, like yourself, don’t understand the tools (math, physics, technology) and they use. Nor do they even bother with estimating the error in the measurements those tools make. They are driven by statistical thinking and causality means zip to them.

    • A lot of assumptions here about me in particular, but ok!
      I’ve had plenty of experience/frustration with people who fit this description to a far more contemptible degree than I ever did, so I’ll assume you are talking about them. ; )
      I’m glad you came by!

  4. […] “Nothing you say about the brain makes any sense.” Polemical, a bit haughty, but some good points here. […]

  5. Alex says:

    Um, lol- this is very amusing (if *really* scathing O_o) but I have a genuine question: I read your “about” section, which seemed to say that you wanted to enjoy free, unfettered exchanges of thoughts and ideas *about brain science* (unless I read that wrong?)with…whoever might wish to engage with good faith. I think ? But here you seem to be saying “shut the f*** up, you don’t now anything worth engaging with, and I’m over it all”. ??No issue with either message, personally, lol, but am confuzzled!! Bad day? Or have I missed something?

    • I’m really not that scathing, though I understand why it might read that way. The About section (thanks for checking that out, btw!) is my actual intent for this space, though this first late-night post clearly does not represent that. Correct. It’s interesting to me, though, that so many people see it as a burn, when I wrote it and I see it as more of a confession… a cathartic unloading? I also am, yes, just very giddy to be able to speak how I want to about things I’ve been into for a long long time without any real fear of repercussions, so I accept that the first thing off the presses is a little crude and adolescent. The next post should bring this together a little better. Hope you’ll get a chance to read it!

      • Alex says:

        Yes- ok, lol. I ‘geddit’ I think- the kind of rant one might make after getting a new and better job, at the office ‘goodbye’ party after a few too many, lol ? Or something. I get the gist, I think.(?)
        I was all excited about free unfettered brain discussion, and then I thought I’d better not put my hand up- being an amateur an all :p. (I have just started a psych/biochem double major- pre-cursor to neuro in postgrad. On paper, your worst nightmare, according to the above, lol).
        I agree with everything you say- including the bit about intelligent laypeople being by and large incorrect.
        But some of us know it:)

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