Why the Best Scientists Are Open Minded

Primatologists and praying farmers show us why it takes a flexible brain, and many perspectives, to unlock truly groundbreaking science.

Philip Kitcher: So is there a way to define science and separate it from other things? Philosophers for a very long time have been quite dubious about this possibility and I think that’s right—right to be dubious. There are all sorts of things that go under the name of science. There are the natural sciences, there are the social sciences, there are also various applied sciences.

It’s not really very easy to find anything that all of those things have in common with one another that isn’t relatively banal and also common to many of our everyday activities. So we start off thinking about, of course, things like physics and chemistry and biology and earth science and so forth, but then there are also the social sciences, the human sciences, various branches of psychology, economics and so forth. But it’s easy to forget that there are also sciences that do rather specific things, like the kinds of scientific investigations people undertake when they try to restore old works of art or the kinds of research that people take when they try to figure out whether a particular document from the past is a new manuscript by a famous author.

So there are lots and lots of scientific studies and they shade over into relatively familiar things like detective work, and those shade over into the kinds of things that we do when we’re trying to solve quite practical problems in our own lives, when we’re trying to figure out what goes wrong with the plumbing or where we’ve left something. So it’s very, very hard, I think, to say that there’s something distinctive about science that doesn’t also apply to lots and lots and lots of other activities.

There are certainly some ways of criticizing scientific practice, some of which I’ve made myself. But I want to begin with some very familiar ones. I mean some people will say that the science that was produced throughout much of the history of science was distorted because it was produced by a certain class of people. The Royal Society famously wanted its members to be “gentlemen, free and unconfined.” They didn’t like having tradespeople in because they might have a pecuniary interest that would lead them not to respect the truth. And they didn’t let women in until after the Second World War! And actually letting women scientists in makes a big difference, and has made a big difference, to certain areas of science.

The study of our primate relatives, for example, was enormously transformed in the '60s and '70s as a bunch of women primatologists really started to do very serious research and changed our views about all sorts of things. I mean there was this old view that there were these dominant males and all the action was about how the dominant males got to be dominant and how they treated other males and all the rest of it.

And after women began to look very, very carefully at other features of primate societies they discovered that all sorts of things were going on because of the females influencing the mating patterns, and the females would make friends with males that they thought would be helpful and supportive, and this whole view of the sort of hyperaggressive primate beating his chest was completely deflated in favor of all kinds of subtle strategies pursued by both sexes. And that was a complete transformation in our understanding of primate behavior. It’s a wonderful thing to look back and see what a difference people like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Shirley Strum and others have made. So there’s a very, very clear case.

Now there are other kinds of critique that are sometimes launched. I mean people will sometimes say, look there are all of these extremely successful non-Western practices that get dismissed by Western science. Anthropologists will sometimes say, “Look how successful this group is, and its belief system seems to be utterly weird and yet they do very successfully,” and indeed Western scientists sometimes can’t replicate those efforts.

And I think those kinds of critiques need to be taken seriously. The one that I think is the most striking is the water temples of Bali. This is a very famous example in which Western scientists tried very, very hard to replicate the strategies that the Balinese had for assigning water to the fields and the terraces where it was needed.Now the best Western scientific efforts failed to do as well as the Balinese system, which was dependent on a system of water temples which people would go and engage in rites to the various gods.Now on the face of it that looks like a huge strange result. These guys are pursuing a religious agricultural policy and they’re doing better than these extremely sophisticated Western scientists and engineers.

When you actually look more closely you can see what’s going on. The problems that the two sides are pursuing and solving are actually rather different. What the Western scientists wanted to do is to set up a foolproof system that would operate in the absence of any kind of social interaction to send the water where it was needed when it was needed. And they failed in that.

What the Balinese do is congregate periodically at the various temples and talk to one another. And, of course, the talking to one another is really what’s doing the trick, not the gods' blessing on the water courses. They change the ways in which the water is distributed according to the needs and the needs are expressed in social interaction.

So what you have here is two different kinds of systems. And the problem at the end of the day is that the scientists were trying to do something much more ambitious. They were trying to get a solution that would work in the absence of human interactions. And what the Balinese have gotten very good at is systematizing human interaction so they can know where to turn the taps on and where to turn the taps off, basically.

But what runs through all of this is a kind of systematic way of reasoning through issues. Thinking hard about things. Thinking what the possibilities are. Testing them out. And in that sense you might say there’s a core that consists in the scientific method, but it’s not something that’s just practiced by physicists or biologists. It’s practiced by lots of us, a lot of the time, in our everyday lives when we face and try to overcome problems that confront us.

Define science. It seems like a simple request, but it's been the cause of debate for philosophy over the years. "There are all sorts of things that go under the name of science," says Philip Kitcher, as he runs through the various branches of science, both obvious (physics, chemistry) and not (detective work, economics). All use different tools, and deal with different matter, so much so that finding a common denominator is difficult. The only thing these distant disciplines seem to share is the scientific method—a way of thinking, reasoning, and testing ideas. This is something we all participate in, whether knowingly or not, when we are confronted with problems we need to overcome: why is the sink leaking, and where did I leave my keys? It makes the question of what is science and what isn't it hard to delineate. There is also a second defining feature of science, but this one is not always put into practice as it should: open mindedness. Historically, science has been closed off to people outside of a certain class: Western, affluent gentlemen (as per the Royal Society of science's stipulations). But as society becomes more open, broader perspectives are coming into the mix, and they remind us of why the best scientists possess flexible minds, capable of seeing beyond the limits of their own experience. Kitcher takes two examples—female primatologists who transformed our understanding of primates in the 1960s, and Balinese farmers who outsmarted Western engineers through prayer—as evidence for why we make greater breakthroughs when our minds are wide open. Discovery in science, it seems, is in direct proportion to diversity. Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter:How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.
Surprising Science
  • 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. 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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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