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

The freedom to doubt

At the core of my scientific philosophy is the belief that doubt, the state of “not knowing”, is not a condition to be shamed or avoided at all costs; instead, it is a state of fantastic possibility, enormous opportunity, and increased clarity - in other words, the start of any great adventure. I will never know everything, and I will always be able to learn something, because “there is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge” (Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. Verso, 1993).

As I continue to engage in science as an effort to build and organize knowledge, I find myself gaining “a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, [s]he is ignorant. When [s]he has a hunch as to what the result is, [s]he is uncertain. And when [s]he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, [s]he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain” (Feynman, Richard P. “The value of science.” Engineering and Science 19.3 (1955): 13-15).

Movement, perception, and thought are part of a closed loop

Movement is fundamental to the workings of the nervous system. Many clues from an evolutionary perspective point to nervous systems developing as “spatial organizers that turn large multi-cellular animal bodies into dynamic self-moving units” (Keijzer, Fred, Marc Van Duijn, and Pamela Lyon. “What nervous systems do: early evolution, input–output, and the skin brain thesis.” Adaptive Behavior 21.2 (2013): 67-85. ). In turn, I have seen nervous systems adapt and change in response to the environments with which they interact; thus, what we call cognition seems to emerge from the interplay between brains, bodies, and the world. I believe that taking all three into account is essential to understanding movement, perception, and thought. These relationships are hard to describe and understand using the open-loop causal model currently used to frame most neuroscience experiments, so I try to explore alternative frameworks in my research. I am currently focusing my explorations 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): 137-145.).

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. All living things share a common alphabet of 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 try 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 for myself, I do not use a research methodology on any species unless it is currently considered ethical to use that method in humans. I try to develop tools and techniques that enable scientifically powerful observations of non-captive animals. I acknowledge that we have learned much from invasive tools and techniques, and I believe that we will learn even more with non-invasive tools and techniques. I am committed to thinking and acting with empathy for our research subjects, regardless of their species.

Holistic and non-fatalistic approach

Neural activity is dynamic, responsive, and adaptive to the conditions in which it occurs. “Nature vs. Nurture” is a false dichotomy that does not acknowledge the brain’s ability to modify itself.

Brains exist within bodies and as just one part of a nervous system; thus, I don’t believe it can be fully understood in disembodied contexts. Reductionism can be a powerful tool but requires understanding what is fundamental to the problem we wish to simplify.

Furthermore, brains and nervous systems are not only the primary subject of my studies, but also my primary tool of investigation. I try 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, some of the neural activity patterns we observe under laboratory conditions may not lead to any natural behaviour developed by evolution in the real world. 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 check the ethological validity of our laboratory experiments.

Even amongst real-world nervous systems, the variety of neural activity patterns and behaviours can be huge. Neuroscience currently does not practice a standardized method for rigorously way of teasing apart the specialized characteristics unique to a particular species from the general, fundamental characteristics of all nervous systems. An easy place to start is to clarify the language we use when we communicate our research – for instance, neuroscientists have a tendency to say “the brain” (implying all brains or nervous systems) 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 that the careful study of behaviour in the wild can also help neuroscientists with this challenge. All creatures, including humans, collect information about the world using many different kinds of sensors, such as eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and skin. If a creature relies on one sensor more than others, we could assume that its nervous system is most influenced by information collected by that sensor. For instance, humans tend to prioritize sight over our other senses, leading to sayings such as “seeing is believing”. By designing experiments focused on observing how creatures move and activate their sensors, especially their “primary” sensor, we can learn what these creatures perceive (aka what they “care about and pay attention to”), which in turn tells us what kind of information their nervous system finds important or interesting. By grouping together species that share the same “primary sensory modality”, we could more meaningfully compare experimental data across species and better organize our knowledge of both the general and the specific characteristics of all brains.

Open, humble, and cooperative research – or, paradoxes are natural and balance each other when they can co-exist

Because collaboration is essential when investigating complex scientific questions, so are mutual respect, non-violent communication, and humility; thus, it is also important to call out ethical 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 other parts of society, and increased cross-pollination of ideas and techniques between disciplines. However, researchers, like anyone, also need safe spaces to make mistakes, document failure, try radical new approaches, and pursue questions challenging the status quo. I support the idea of open science by using open source technologies and publishing platforms, and by actively trying 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 need to earnestly discuss the concepts and ideals that define our craft, so that we may better collaborate with each other and with other disciplines.

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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