Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A plea for “slow science” and philosophical patience in neuroethics

By Richard Ashcroft, PhD

Professor Richard Ashcroft, an AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board Member, teaches medical law and ethics at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London.

Readers of AJOB Neuroscience will be very familiar with the range and pace of innovation in applications of neurosciences to problems in mental health and wellbeing, education, criminology and criminal justice, defense, and love and sexuality – to name but a few areas of human concern. However, there is a skeptical tendency which pushes back against such innovation and claims. This skepticism takes a number of forms. One form is philosophical: some claims made about neurosciences and their applications just make no sense. They rest on conceptual mistakes or logical fallacies. This kind of attack has been made most persuasively by neuroscientist M.R. Bennett and philosopher P.M.S. Hacker in their Neurophilosophy: Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). Another form is empirical: some claims are advanced on the basis of weak or flawed evidence, and may go well beyond what that evidence could support, even if on its own terms the data are robust and obtained in methodologically sound ways. A typical instance of this is the way that newspapers regularly report neuroimaging studies which purport to describe “the autistic brain,” when at best they describe some differences in one subset of autistic people carrying out one experimental task, compared with a small control group of putatively neurotypical people. Another form is ethical: some technologies raise significant ethical challenges. And obviously some challenges are political, bearing on interests of particular social groups or on competing visions of the society we want to live in. The standard examples here are drawn from debates about neuro- or psychopharmacological enhancement.

All of this is true of other life sciences as well – particularly genetics – but there seems at the moment to be a particular backlash about “neurohype” (see previous related posts on this blog here, here, and here).

While there is a lot of enthusiasm for the potential of the neurosciences to improve our understanding of the brain, the mind and human behaviour, and to enable us to develop useful technologies for treatment and enhancement, there is also a lot of scorn for scientific and popular literature which seems, on its face, to do little more than add the particle neuro- to the name of an existing discipline, or to turn well understood findings in psychology or economics into apparently novel discoveries in the neurosciences.

It seems to me that there is a powerful need for ways to disentangle or demarcate on the one hand good from bad arguments about neurosciences and technologies and on the other hand genuinely novel findings where the “neuro-“ is genuinely central from rebranding and turf claiming on the part of neuro-enthusiasts.

This is not directly an ethical question, I think. Some scientists and commentators are, perhaps, guilty of intellectual dishonesty, or of representing themselves as having expertise they don’t really have. This is something that bioethicists have continually wrestled with, from the earliest days of the field. But most of us are not guilty of deliberately over-claiming or hyping our work, or findings in the sciences, any more than we are occasionally guilty of underestimating or misunderstanding the issues. The same is true of the scientists and clinicians working in the neuro-fields.

I think rather it is a question of intellectual responsibility. We need to take more pains over what we say. We need to slow down, to practice in discussions of neuroethics what philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers calls “slow science”.  Here I think there is a special place for philosophy in neuroethics and in interdisciplinary collaboration with neuroscientists, in seeking analytical clarity about what is being claimed, with what evidence, and to what effect. I am not making a special plea for the role of philosophy in making grand theoretical and metaphysical theories, but rather for a modest analytical patience. Wittgenstein, without Wittgensteinianism.

Incorporating philosophy in neuroethics, image courtesy
of flickr user m01229

Want to cite this post?

Ashcroft, R. (2016). A plea for “slow science” and philosophical patience in neuroethics. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/02/a-plea-for-slow-science-and.html

1 comment:

Donald Stein said...

Ashcroft's argument for more "slow science" and less hype is well taken, but perhaps he writes from the perspective of a researcher working under very different conditions than those found in most research universities in America and perhaps elsewhere. The pressure on faculty (and even post-docs) exerted by Deans and their department chairs to get grants and publish in high profile journals is unrelenting. It’s all about the H-factor. As a former Dean I am ashamed of my past colleagues for doing this, but they too are under pressure from higher-ups to generate those indirect cost returns to support their own agendas and building projects.

In addition, they need to "get there first" to get the gifts, the big program grants and the rankings, so it’s a never-ending cycle. It hardly matters what the research is actually about as long as it is recognized sufficiently to bring in the money. Teaching law and ethics, Professor Ashcroft may not be subject to all these pressures, so it is hard to know if he has any empathy for his colleagues who are under the gun. Given the ever diminishing funding resources, and the need to self-fund research (and salary), it is no wonder that the competition has become so fierce. Create a research environment like this and put people who are not typically selected for their social and empathic skills into it and you have a pretty toxic brew. Sadly, it has also been my observation that there is no collective voice to raise against the mess. It would be very unwise and even foolhardy to expect that senior university administrators would step up to do this.