How Capitalism Rewards the Least Ethical Brain Science
[free version] A neuroscience PhD dishes on the terrible science being put out by U.S. universities, and how it convinces the general public that we know more about the brain than we do.
K. is a PhD student at a major university in California. She’s interested in how brain cells communicate with each others, particularly in how sex hormones can change connections in the brain. When K. entered grad school, she was excited about the prospect of studying and understanding the brain, but as she became immersed in the field, she realized that every facet of it was infected by bad science and bad communication. Basically, capitalism rewards the science most aligned with the interests of the U.S., and the media rewards the scientists who can make the biggest and boldest claims, even if they’re untrue.
[This as-told-to has been edited and condensed]
You have cognitive scientists who treat the brain as a black box, you have cognitive neuroscientists who try to incorporate imaging, like fMRIs, and try to draw conclusions based on that and behavioral tests. And you have systems neuroscientists who see the way the brain communicates as electrical circuits, and try to tear apart these systems of the brain. And then you have molecular neuroscientists who are interested in the basic fundamental details of how neurons work.
I’d come into my PhD having done some systems neuroscientists, where I’d probed the function of two brain areas in rats to figure out their contributions to specific types of memory. And I thought, “ok this is cool, but I don’t know if destroying big parts of the brain leads to knowing about how it works.” So I started to be a little bit of a skeptic.
I was entering a field that was very different from anything I’d done before. I was hopeful! But as the years have gone by, I’ve been progressively more disappointed in a lot of the research that’s been put out there, from a scientific perspective and from an ethical perspective.
One of the big problems in neuroscience is the funding schemes and the publishing schemes right now favor a very particular type of science that is often not rigorous. We don’t reward really precise explanations into how the brain functions. The systems in place are often very concerned with who can make the biggest, most impactful statements about the brain, who can do the most fancy and flashy techniques that have never been done before. And that filters down to science communicators and publishers, and it all gets sensationalized, and then the general public gets really bad, really wrong ideas about how the brain works. The science being done in these big universities is often poorly constructed, and logically unsound.
The common denominator of most of the bad science is how science funding works, K. says.
So you’ll have grants from the Department of Defense, who have these violent, violent calls for scientists to help them with their mission. I remember a specific grant fellowship that was to help the DoD augment the brains of soldiers to kind of turn them into super soldiers. They wanted to figure out a way to erase memories of soldiers so that they didn’t get PTSD from committing violence or being at war. It was some pretty fucked up shit. It’s quite upsetting. Another big fellowship has this really small line that says all scientists who get this fellowship must be willing to be called upon to serve the U.S. government for the good of the nation.
A lot of scientists are doing amazing science, and they often get overlooked, because their science isn’t serving the agenda of this failed state.
There’s this lasers in the brain stuff. There’s this technique pioneered in the late 2000s, where it basically inserts genetically modified ion channels into neurons. Ion channels are integral to ensuring that neurons can communicate. They work by changing their electrical voltage. There was this technique that modified these cells to have these ion channels that responded to a specific wavelength of light, and by doing this, you could cause a neuron’s voltage to change on command by shining a specific wavelength of light on it. It’s called optogenetics. It’s used to probe the cause and effects of systems—to see if you can activate a specific brain region and see what the effect is.
There’s a group at MIT that’s done it in marmosets. But not in humans. But part of the DoD’s goal is to try to get it to be done in humans. This sets up a way to basically have mind control over people. The entire idea that you can non-consensually alter people’s brains. They want to make soldiers better and enhance their brains so that they don't have to think about war.
So is the main problem just that American science is inextricably tied to the war machine?
That’s definitely one part—American science is used to advance American goals. But there’s another part, which is that there’s just some really shitty science being done. Neuroscientists are making these really sweeping statements about the brain and how it functions. Like with the optogenetics, they’re making a statement about a change in a cell and then making sweeping statements about what that means about behavior.
It’s way cooler to say, for example, that you’ve discovered the brain regions that cause transgenderism, or a disorder, or whatever. It’s less cool to say you looked at a molecule, and the molecule attracted another molecule in a really specific way. The latter is very fundamental science, it would contribute to science in a long term way, but the former is more appealing to the public.
It’s all about funding and publishing. The field of neuroscience is so fucking competitive about who gets grants, who gets to publish, which means there’s a culture of trying to pursue the most prestigious journal the most prestigious grant. There are so many wonderful, smart people but there’s this scarcity mindset that rewards the largest, most sweeping statements.
I’m pretty sure the people who are doing the not-great science know they’re doing it. They’re not stupid. But it’s profitable.