Scientific Philosophy and Ethics

Below are the philosophies and ethics that shape my research pursuits. I’m always open to discussing and improving my understanding and implementation of these ideas.

Key ideas

Movement, perception, and thought are part of the same loop

Movement is fundamental to the workings of the brain. It is clear from an evolutionary perspective that nervous systems developed as a tool for navigating unknown, complex environments. In turn, nervous systems adapt and change in response to the environments with which they interact, including the bodies through which this interaction is implemented; thus, cognition emerges from the interplay between brains, bodies, and the world. Taking all three into account is essential to understanding movement, perception, and thought. These loops are hard to describe in the “feed-forward” biased language of current neuroscience, and a thoughtful re-examination can make our metaphors more useful.

Empathetic animal research

Neuroscience research has made us increasingly aware of both the influence of the environment on the brain, and the intimate similarities between human nervous systems and the nervous systems of other animals. The basic fundaments of biology also tell us that all living things are made from different combinations of the same five molecules (Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, Thymine, and Uracil). We are starting to find that even invertebrate animals use abilities and processes that we once thought only vertebrates could use. I want to prioritize deep respect for all living systems in my pursuit of greater understanding. As a starting point, I do not use a research methodology on any species unless it is currently considered ethical to use that method in humans. I want to develop tools and techniques that enable scientifically powerful observations of freely moving animals living in playful and enriching habitats.

Holistic and non-fatalistic approach

“Nature vs. Nurture” is a false dichotomy that does not acknowledge the brain’s ability to modify itself. Reductionism can be a powerful tool but requires understanding what is fundamental to the problem you wish to simplify; thus, it cannot yet be applied to the study of emergent properties, nor to connecting patterns of neural activity to natural behaviors at the organismal level. Neural activity is itself dynamic, responsive, and adaptive to the conditions in which it occurs. Brains exist within bodies and cannot be fully understood in disembodied contexts. These ideas not only describe the primary subject of my studies, but also my primary tool of investigation. I want to design my experiments to embrace the full richness of the brain across spatial levels and timescales. I also try to maintain daily practices that improve my awareness, fitness, and flexibility.

Field work establishes “ground truth”; Comparative approach checks generalizability

We now have incredible computational and theoretical tools for simulating possible relationships and interactions of neurons – in fact, they are almost too good, in the sense that we can simulate just about every possible situation we can think of. However, not all of these algorithms reflect the solutions honed by evolution in the various life-forms on our planet, because we don’t force our algorithms to deal with the same constraints as biological nervous systems that must develop within and adapt to the real world. We are also discovering that biological systems are so robust and adaptive that laboratory animals can learn just about any behaviour that is reinforced. When it comes to our computational theories and predictive models, current neuroscience is in many ways overwhelmed by too many options. If we want to understand real-world nervous systems anytime soon, we need to reduce the possible cellular interactions we can simulate and the possible behaviours we can train and test in the lab to the ones that best reflect what we currently know about real-world nervous systems. Field Neuroscience, or the study of wild nervous systems, can provide powerful “ground truth” data to help us do exactly this reduction. But even amongst real-world nervous systems, the variaty is huge – and so we need a way to disambiguate general, fundamental characteristics of all nervous systems versus specialized characteristics unique to a particular species. Comparative Neuroscience, or the study of similar functions across a diverse set of relevant species, can provide the data we need to make this distinction.

Open, humble, and cooperative research – or, paradoxes are useful and can co-exist

Mutual respect, non-violent communication, and humility are essential when investigating complex scientific questions; thus, it is also important to call out scientific misconduct, sensationalist publication, and oppressive hierarchies in research organizations. Open and inclusive scientific research can dramatically increase the pace of scientific progress, by motivating more meticulous documentation, better communication between professional science and the general public, and increased cross-pollination of ideas and techniques between fields. However, researchers also need safe spaces to make mistakes, report negative results, try radical new approaches, and pursue questions challenging the status quo. I support the open science community by using open source technologies and publishing platforms, and by deliberately designing my projects to bridge science, engineering, humanities, and the arts. At the same time, I work best in small long-term teams, and I believe that modern neuroscientists needs to earnestly discuss the concepts and ideals that define our craft, so that we may better collaborate outside our field.

History of Science

Without understanding where we’ve been, we cannot understand how to act in the present, nor can we be informed creators of our futures.

The perspective we gain when we understand our history is invaluable. An excellent example is this Guardian article by Stephen Buranyi about the history of scientific publishing: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

Something that currently frustrates me a lot is that the expected standard basic training for a neuroscientist does not include an overview of the major controversies in our field from a historical perspective. If you are a historian of science, and are interested in developing university-level curriculum about historical events relevant to the field of neuroscience, please get in touch!

If you are a journal editor…

Thank you so much for your interest in my research. I have some questions regarding your journal:

  • are you an open access journal, with no fees charged to authors who wish to publish open access nor to readers who wish to access your articles?

  • do you enforce an open science policy, wherein authors are required to submit their experimental datasets and copies of any code used to implement or analyze the experiment?

  • do you accept papers publishing negative results and replications of past experiments?

  • do you enable the use of embedded videos as an option for figures included in papers?

I eagerly await your response.

Cheers, Danbee

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