Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Minority Report

I've just gotten done participating in a proposal review process. I'm not allowed to say anything specific about it, and I know that specificity is the essence of good story telling, so this will just have to be a badly told tale. Still.

I really didn't like the proposal, but everybody else did. The basic reason was that I couldn't see any good reason to do undertake the experiments the investigators proposed, whereas the other reviewers do the same sort of thing themselves so naturally they weren't very open to the idea that it's all basically pointless.

To get slightly more specific, this has to do with the existence of some new high tech toys that allow people to make observations that sound like they ought to be really cool and might even be like really wild cool stuff that you read about in science fiction -- to be even more specific, reading people's minds.

That's about as specific as I can get but here's the bottom line. We know that stimuli get registered in the brain, and that the brain creates experience, such as specifically pain. So if people are in pain certain parts of the brain are more active, and if they are in less pain those places are less active. On the other hand we don't know what pieces of that, if any, have to do with the conscious experience of pain, because most of what goes on in our brains does not impinge on our consciousness. And just looking at the pictures will never, ever tell us. And for that matter, even if it could, what would it mean other than, these are the part of the brain that are active when we are in pain, and these are the parts that are associated with our conscious experience of pain. If I do something that results in people reporting less pain, I would expect the images of their brains to be like the images of brains of people who report less pain. So what?

Apparently so something, even though they couldn't really explain it to me. So this will probably get funded. Oh well.

Good science isn't about fancy toys and stuff that only a few people know about. It starts with asking the right questions. And that's not just a matter for scientists -- it ought to be a right of the people.

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