Monday, July 21, 2014

The Neurocritic Critiques Critical Neuroscience

I wanted to submit a paper for the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Research Topic on Critical Neuroscience: The context and implications of human brain research, but I couldn't decide what I should write about.

Could I just submit a blog post like Professor of Literary Neuroimaging that critiqued the entrée of fMRI into Literature Departments?
“So literature is abandoning Marxism and psychoanalysis in favor of neuroimaging!! Meanwhile, key neuroimagers have taken up psychoanalysis (Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2010) and socialism (Tricomi et al., 2010).

Would they accept short humorous pieces like this...

Tenure-Track Position in Neuroetiquette and Gender Theory

Department of Critical Socioneurobiology.

Pending approval of departmental funds, the North Dakota School for Social Research is seeking outstanding candidates for its newly developed Interdisciplinary Program in Architecture, Kitchen Design, Sociology of Gender Roles, and Neuroimaging. State-of-the-art Siemens MAGNETOM 7T MRI and 306-channel planar dc-SQUID Neuromag Vectorview MEG facilities available. Start-up funds of $50K provided. Requirement to teach 3 classes per semester, including Statistics, Introduction to Celebrity Chefs, and Advanced Techniques in Optogenetics. The successful Assistant Professor candidate will be expected to obtain NEA funding, publish in high-impact science journals, give a Top 10 TED talk, and negotiate a major book deal before receiving tenure. Experience as a nationally syndicated advice columnist preferred.

Send CV, design portfolio, writing samples, research manifesto, and 10 letters of recommendation to: Chair of Search Committee, Department of Critical Socioneurobiology, North Dakota School for Social Research. Address inquiries to:

NDSFSR is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

...accompanied by a [somewhat] more serious meditation on Neuroetiquette and Neuroculture, which explained that neuroscientists are not taking jobs away from philosophers, sociologists and gender theorists:
I think the neuro-panic among social scientists is overblown. How many philosophers, sociologists, and gender theorists are unemployed because their respective departments have decided to hire neuroscientists instead? How many developmental neurobiologists have applied for this Instructor of Philosophy position at Rochester Community and Technical College? Will a cognitive neuroscientst be able to teach transnational feminism or postcolonial feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory in the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Illinois State University?

Could I have converted all of the above content into a coherent scholarly manuscript that addressed firstly, the pestilent neuro-ization of the academy (and the kitchen),1 and secondly, the reactionary anti-neuro manifesto pushback? Did I even want to? There was certainly no time (or money) for such a project...

Or how about something on The Mainstreaming of Neurocriticism (followed by its inevitable decline)? That would have been a lot easier for me.

But Is Neurocriticism the same as Critical Neuroscience

The call for papers said:
Critical neuroscience is an approach that addresses these contested issues surrounding the field of cognitive neuroscience from multiple viewpoints. The aim is to engage neuroscientists with researchers in the humanities and social sciences who deal with the implications of brain-based approaches to fields such as education, law, medicine, social policy, business and with the expansion of neuroscience in the University more broadly. Critical neuroscience encourages collaborative approaches to careful assessments of the status quo, longer-term impacts, potentials and problems of cognitive neuroscience within the laboratory and in the various areas of application. The project has been analyzing methods, technologies and theoretical paradigms, while also drawing on history and philosophy of science, anthropology, sociology and cultural studies, and reaching out to include practitioners from medicine, social policy, counseling and science journalism in order to better understand whether and how neuroscience could have value for these other domains.

Presciently,2 the Editors wanted to “address the visions and challenges surrounding new grand-scale initiatives in neuroscience — including the EU-funded Human Brain Project and a comparable initiative planned in the U.S.”

As it so happens, a mere two weeks ago, the €1-billion HBP was roundly criticized in an open letter signed by 156 neuroscientists (the list of signatories and supporters is now over 700):
...the HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning. Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals. Further attrition of members during the ramp-up phase added to this narrowing ....  including the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories...
. . .

In this context, we wish to express the view that the HBP is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed. We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.

A flurry of press and blog coverage ensued, followed by a bigwig defense in New Scientist and an official statement [PDF] from the HBP. Although it's clear there are fundamental differences of opinion about a massively optimistic and expensive attempt to model the human brain, organizational issues of power and control are key as well:
The nixed subproject, called Cognitive Architectures and headed by French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, represented all the neuroscience in Europe that isn't working on a molecular or synaptic level, says Zachary Mainen of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, one of the authors of the letter. HBP “is not a democracy, it’s Henry’s game, and you can either be convinced by his arguments or else you can leave,” Mainen says.
link via Neuroecology

You might think that the current HBP dispute has drifted outside the realm of the “Critical Neuroscience” Research Topic.3 But you'd be wrong, because Extending the mind: a review of ethnographies of neuroscience practice (Mahfoud, 2014) appeared online only one month before the brouhaha:
Ethnographic studies of neuroscience knowledge can potentially offer insight into the relationship between the everyday of scientific practice and reasoning on the one hand and the political and moral economy of science on the other, as well as encouraging conversation between the social and biological sciences, as this special issue aims to do. 

So what do I think about the Critical Neuroscience enterprise? The 18 articles are pretty diverse and include fMRI methods papers on Machine Learning Classifiers and deficient approaches to neuroimaging.

I already blogged about one paper in the special issue, on the fun topic of Empirical Neuroenchantment: From Reading Minds to Thinking Critically (Ali et al., 2014). So see The Seductive Allure of Spintronics™ Neuroimaging mock mind reading scanner for that.

Another article is basically a sociocultural mega-thrashing of the NIMH RDoC framework for mental health research. Worth quoting:
In this article we consider the rationale of the RDoC and what it reveals about implicit models of mental disorders. As an overall framework for understanding mental disorders, RDoC is impoverished and conceptually flawed. These limitations are not accidental but stem from disciplinary commitments and interests that are at odds with the larger concerns of psychiatry. 

There are also contributions from “historians of science, STS scholars and philosophers.” The acronym highlights a language gap between disciplines, because I had to look up STS scholars — they're not experts in the superior temporal sulcus, they study science, technology and society.4 On that note, I'm not sure how many readers will devour a support vector machine classifier using a linear kernel and a critical philosophical investigation of the brain qua image.

But that's the problem with a multiplicity of specialized viewpoints in academic publishing. Maybe someone (the Editors?) can host a series of interdisciplinary blog posts that are comprehensible to a broader audience?


1 Who can forget Neurokitchen Design? Or The Neuroscience of Kitchen Cabinetry?

2 The call for papers went out over a year ago.

3 Unless, perhaps, you want to critique the growing literature on whether Neurocoaching could improve the Neuroleadership skills of HBP oligarch Henry Markram....

4ADDENDUM (July 21 2014) - Neuroskeptic has informed me that STS also stands for Science and Technologies Studies. Cornell, Berkeley, Wisconsin, RPI, and UC Davis, for instance, call their programs Science and Technology Studies. Harvard, Stanford and NC State call it Science, Technology, and Society (but Harvard hedges their bets and uses both terms).

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At July 21, 2014 4:55 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

My understanding is that STS originally stood for "Science and Technology Studies", not "Science Technology and Society".

The former being a very silly term since we already had science and technology studies, it being called science.

At July 21, 2014 9:15 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Well don't I feel silly! Thanks for the correction. I've amended the post with the names used by various university programs.


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