Pinker v. Gladwell

Steven Pinker's attack on Malcolm Gladwell in the New York Times Book Review was more lucid and entertaining than it was intellectually honest.

Pinker's take-away claim is that Gladwell's work puts sciencey lipstick on the pig of anti-science "populism": "The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition." So, after making much of Gladwell's misspelling of eigenvalue as "igon value," Pinker ushers him out of the company of serious thinkers: "Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values."

It's no surprise that Pinker is defending what he always defends, which is the "analytical prowess" of the experts who measure human beings. How the Mind Works, for example, is full of praise for "crisp categories" and theories that "idealize away from the messiness of the world." In many a controversy, Pinker has argued that we can and should rely on the power of precise information and abstract analysis to solve problems. So, for instance, he holds that IQ tests predict future success, that knowing your genetic sequence allows you to make predictions about how you'll behave, and that a college quarterback's rank in the NFL draft is a good indicator of how well he will play professionally.

On the other side of the issue, though, are those who believe, like Gladwell, that expert overconfidence is a serious problem, and that we should recognize the inherent limitations in our current ability to explain and predict things.

Pinker's rejoinder, as I read it, is this other side isn't science and doesn't include serious scientists. That's false.

Pinker believes IQ tests measure differences that are largely genetic. Other psychologists disagree. Pinker believes we can map a line from genes to behavior. Other scientists hold, in the words of the neurobiologist Steve Rose, that "it is in the nature of living things to be radically indeterminate."

Here's another example: In 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then the President of Harvard, was roasted for saying that one reason for the paucity of women in the top ranks of science faculty might be due to gender differences in IQ distribution, some of the roasters were scientists. They didn't claim Summers was politically incorrect to say there could be a biological basis for the gender difference; they said he was scientifically incorrect to assume that we know enough about the interactions of genes and environment to raise the issue.

At a conference on the Summers controversy, I saw some of the evidence those people cite. There, the psychologist Joshua Aronson present results from experiments on college students about to take a math test. Under the usual test conditions, men and women, all hard-core science majors, performed about equally. But when a group was told, "You know, there has never been a gender difference on this test," the women did better than the men. In another study, women students who'd been reminded that they were women did worse on a geometry-skills test than other women test-takers; men reminded of their gender did better than other men.

Those results don't eliminate the possibility that there are biologically-based gender differences in math ability, even at the extreme high end of the scoring curve (which is what Summers wanted to talk about). But they certainly do show it's too early to say for sure that male-female test gaps must be due to genetics. That's not a political point. It's a scientific one.

Meanwhile, even as Pinker questions the legitimacy of an opponent, he lends his prestige to allies who have, to put it kindly, no better claim to be scientists than does Gladwell. That's what Gladwell himself stressed in his understated reply to Pinker's review, where he noted that Pinker's sources for the quarterback claim weren't scientists. (For a lot more detail on the NFL-draft argument, see this article, in which one of Pinker's sources replies to Gladwell's reply.)

Elsewhere I've mentioned that I believe there's a temperamental difference (maybe it's genetic!) between people who like science for its certainties and those who like it for its surprises. Pinker's writing always made me think he's at one extreme of the distribution, which shouldn't bother anyone -- until he starts claiming that there is no other end. The way he tells people to beware of Gladwell makes me wary of him.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.