[Comp-neuro] Discussion - Kuhn - and brief comments

Jim Bower bower at uthscsa.edu
Tue Sep 2 05:03:30 CEST 2008

First,  humans knew for at least several thousand years before Newton  
the question: why or how do the planets wander (redundant in fact) and  
they also knew what data to collect (their position in the night  
sky).  By the time of Newton, many astronomers also used telescopes.   
What they lacked was a formal agreed upon structural foundation  
(Newtonian mechanics), around which the field could be organized, and  
through which it could pose explicitly formulated questions.   Indeed,  
the software projects you mention are a step in that direction  
(GENESIS was intended explicitly to be so).  But only a small step.

With respect to measurements -- I have already pointed out that the  
standard form in which experimentalists report their results (PST  
Histograms) are likely to be completely inappropriate for brains.

  As far as textbooks, specialized journals, learned societies, etc,  
are concerned -- just because we officially have them, doesn't mean  
that they are what they say they are -- or they do what Kuhn was  
talking about.  I have suggested previously, that these are more  
modeled after physics - than appropriate for the study of the brain or  
biology as a whole.    I have already made the point that there is a  
direct link between the development of the scientific journal and the  
nature of explanation and communication in physics.  in biology we are  
still largely story tellers -- and have simply adapted the form of  
scientific publication invented by Newton and his colleagues to our  
story telling.   Ironically enough, it was physics and not biology,  
that has lead the way in the use of the Internet for publishing.   
Further, the internet has allowed physicists to explore pre-review  
publication of scientific papers.  Why?  Because along with the story  
telling nature of biological publications comes the largely political  
process of peer review - which in recent years has gotten way way out  
of hand.  I can not tell you how much heat we took in the early days  
of the computational neuroscience meetings, when we actually were  
willing to publish short papers that had not been thoroughly peer  
reviewed -- Why does a publication in biology require the approval of  
the dons?  but not in physics?  Because we don't yet have  
quantitatively defined paradigms, we have qualitatively (at best)  
supported opinions, whose propagation (and protection) is dependent on  
'who says so'.  How else is it possible for the cerebellum to remain a  
motor control device for 150 years?

With respect to unmeasurable theories - it seems to me that string  
theory is doing pretty well -- why is that?

Finally, and sad to say, this list serve is made up of those  
interested in the brain who are most likely to quantify their data and  
theories -- one should not be deluded into thinking that "most  
neuroscientists" get anywhere close.  "Most neuroscientists" still  
regard modeling as a largely empty exercise of little relevance to  
them (at least judging by what they do and don't reference in their  
papers).  I am afraid to say it is sometimes hard for me to disagree  
with them.  The huge disconnect between experiment and modeling in  
neuroscience is explicit testament to our lack of real paradigmatic  
structure --  I do think that this is slowly changing, but tell me how  
many graduate schools of neuroscience have a required course in theory  
and modeling -- probably can count them on one hand.  And how much  
modeling shows up in our textbooks?

This disconnect is another reason why I think realistic modeling is a  
crucial technology for moving forward.

Jim Bower

On Aug 29, 2008, at 8:35 AM, Klaus M. Stiefel wrote:

> Hi All, Dear Dr. Bower,
> "incommensurate ways of seeing the world and practicing science  
> within it" is basically what I meant by "basic explainanda".  Modern  
> neuroscience is practiced so commensurate (=  having a common  
> measure) that most neuroscientists buy their measuring equipment  
> (amplifiers ect.) from the same handful of international companies  
> and use the same set of equations and software (NEURON, GENESIS,  
> XPP). Especially in paradigmatic sciences, there will be a lack of  
> (deemed unnecessary and solved) discussion.
> Kuhn argues (SSR, chapter 2) that a science, once it is  
> paradigmatic, has textbooks, specialized journals,  and professional  
> societies, like biology and neuroscience have many. A healthy  
> scientific disagreement like the one in this discussion is not  
> necessarily a sign of a pre-paradigmatic science. It might lead the  
> way to a paradigm change, though.
> One of the few people who I believe are outside of the main paradigm  
> of neuroscience is Roger Penrose, and his ideas about quantum  
> coherence in neurons. He has (rightfully, I believe) few followers,  
> and you won't see any devices to measure the quantum effects he is  
> talking about at the vendors' booths at SFN.
> Best,
> Klaus Stiefel
>> Klaus Stiefel:  pre-paradigmatic " What he meant by that is a  
>> disagreement about the basic explainanda"
>> No, Kuhn was focused on process to quote:  "the early developmental  
>> stages of most sciences (are) characterized by continual  
>> competition between a number of distinct views of nature, each  
>> partially derived from, and all roughly compatible with, the  
>> dictates of scientific observation and method,  (In pre- 
>> paradigmatic science) what differentiates these various schools  
>> (is) not one or another failure of method - they are all  
>> "scientific" - but what we shall come to call their incommensurable  
>> ways of seeing the world and practicing science within it"  (pg 4  
>> The Structure of Scientific Revolution.)   If this discussion over  
>> the last two months doesn't make it clear that, as a field, we  
>> currently have "incommensurate ways of seeing the world and  
>> practicing science within it"  I don't know what does.  Kuhn goes  
>> on to say:  "Men (sic) whose research is based on shared paradigms  
>> are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific  
>> practice."  Again, this discussion makes it pretty clear to me that  
>> we have not yet reached that point. In fact,  (and I would say  
>> reflecting this fact) the kind of discussion we have been having  
>> here seldom ever happens as we are content (and being pre- 
>> paradigmatic can get away with) agreeing to not discuss what we  
>> don't agree on, another characteristic of pre-paradigmatic science  
>> -- and the reason I don't mind starting these discussions.
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