Scientific Philosophy and Ethics

Below are the philosophies and ethics that shape my research pursuits. They were in large part inspired by the Green Neuroscience Laboratory.

I also recommend the following thoughtful guidelines for scientists:

Please leave your thoughts in the comments below! I’m always open to discussing and improving my understanding and implementation of these ideas.

Key ideas

Movement, perception, and thought are part of a closed 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 and understand using the open-loop causal model currently used to frame most neuroscience experiments. Instead, I would like to design experiments and re-analyze existing data based on the closed-loop control model described by Perceptual Control Theory and the Test for Controlled Variables (Marken, Richard S. “You say you had a revolution: Methodological foundations of closed-loop psychology.” Review of General Psychology 13.2 (2009): 137.).

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, in recognition that “the humanest possible treatment of experimental animals, far from being an obstacle, is actually a prerequisite for successful animal experiments” (William M. S. Russell and Rex Leonard Burch. “The principles of humane experimental technique.” (1959)). 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. Neural activity is itself dynamic, responsive, and adaptive to the conditions in which it occurs. Brains exist within bodies and as just one part of the nervous system; thus, it 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 and robustness of nervous systems, 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 interactions between neurons – in fact, they are almost too good, in the sense that we can now simulate just about every possible situation we can imagine. 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, which 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 train and test in the lab behaviours and neural activities that best reflect real-world nervous systems. Field Neuroscience, or the study of nervous systems “in the wild” (as opposed to in the laboratory), can provide powerful “ground truth” data to help us verify the ethological validity of our experimental designs.

But even amongst real-world nervous systems, the variety is huge. So we need a way to disambiguate general, fundamental characteristics of all nervous systems versus specialized characteristics unique to a particular species. An easy place to start is the language we use when we communicate our research – for instance, our tendency to say “the brain” when we really mean “my genetically mutated and cloned laboratory mouse’s brain” or “the brains of well-educated white male humans in the US”. The logical follow-through of this idea is to study as many nervous systems(/animals/species/genus) as possible. But then how do you make rigorous and sensible comparisons between nervous systems?

I propose comparing across nervous systems that share the same principle sensory modality. For instance, both humans and cuttlefish tend to prioritize sight over their other senses. Therefore, we can learn what both humans and cuttlefish are perceiving, or “caring about and paying attention to”, by skillfully observing how the creatures under observation move and activate their visual sensors.

Open, humble, and cooperative research – or, paradoxes are natural and balance each other when they 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 disciplines. 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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