In Defense of Basic Science

This past week, the New York Times ran a piece about Dr. Thomas R. Insell, former neuroscientist and current director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).  It was an interesting piece, centered on public protest and his tendency to break from tradition, but the most interesting aspect to the piece was nested just below the surface.  The entire piece, and in fact Dr. Insell’s career, was a beautiful defense of basic science.  I’m using the word basic here to refer to science that isn’t attached directly to a treatment, not to imply that it is in anyway simple or less important.  In many ways, basic science is another example of a situation where scientists use a word with cultural connotations and are confused to see it misused by people on the outside (think ‘theory’ for one example).  No, not simple, but as important as bedrock.  All of translational medicine and technology is built upon basic science.  To be more blunt, our western way of life is built upon it.

Throughout his career as the director of the NIMH, Dr. Insell has shifted the institute’s focus towards basic science, and for good reason.  So much of what we think we know about mental health is based on fuzzy science, and worse, brute force chemical treatments.  Many diagnoses are loose, for instance autism, which is why there exists a spectrum whose antipodes are barely recognizable as the same disease.  Much of the way we think about treatment is based on 20th century ideas, many of which have failed us in terms of reducing and treating and truthfully understanding mental disease.  The common problem here isn’t one of lack of effort, it is misplaced effort.  We don’t understand the underlying cause because we don’t understand the underlying organ.  Until we have a more comprehensive understanding of the brain, targeted and effective treatments for mental health issues will continue to elude us.

I understand the appeal of funding translational science, it seems logical at face value to throw your money where it will have the most effect now.   The translational science seems sexy and exciting, the basic science seems dull and disconnected.  We have limited resources; therefore lets direct them towards outcomes.  The problem with that idea is one of assumptions.  To hold that idea, you assume we know everything we need to know to solve these problems, it’s simply a matter of combining ideas.  This is simply false, in most matters, but most specifically with regard to the brain.  It is only through funding both translational and basic science that we will ever make real progress on these issues and stave off unnecessary human suffering.  Dr. Insell gets it.  I, for one, am glad he does.

Prospect Theory and the Looming U.S. Government Default

As we approach the entirely real possibility of the United States defaulting on its debt, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the behavior and strategy of the less respectable Tea Party members in Congress. What’s clear to nearly everyone is that the Tea Party’s gamble has backfired. What’s clear to nearly no one is why they have yet to notice that their strategy is a losing one. The irrationality of it all is enough to make you laugh… through gritted, angry teeth.

Only recently, I’ve found myself thinking back on behavioral economics, that love-child of Psychology and Microeconomics that tries to describe how actual humans make decisions. Behavioral economics did away with the fundamental assumptions of the microeconomic field, that is that humans are entirely rational creatures. To anyone outside of economics, this may seem obvious, but for many reasons, including an extremely successful theory built on this premise, the idea persisted much longer than it should have. Enter behavioral economics, and with it, prospect theory, which is an attempt to describe how humans deviate from rationality when making decisions.

Prospect theory puts forward two fundamental ideas about human decision making that are relevant here:

1. We fear losses more than we seek gains.

2. We overestimate very low probabilities.

These two observations lead to the chart below, known as the Four Fold pattern.

Four Fold Pattern

The chart illustrates a few obvious points.  If you are given a choice between a  95% chance of winning a large amount of money (top left box) or 100% chance of being given a  lower amount, you become afraid of coming up empty on the gamble (because you overestimate a 5% chance of loss) and are very likely to take the sure thing.  The bottom right box illustrates a similar case, however, in this case your choice is between a 5% chance to lose a large amount and a sure loss of a much lower amount.  Because you fear losses so much, you accept a settlement for a guaranty of loss of less money.  Many civil court cases end in exactly this manner.   In both of these boxes, you seek the comfortable choice, and certainty wins out.

The truly interesting cases lie on the other diagonal, the situations in which you become a risky decision maker.  In the bottom left hand box, your choice is between a very low probability gamble with a large payoff, or a %100 chance of gaining a much smaller amount.   Because we deviate from rationality, we overweigh the low probability of winning, and so reject a favorable settlement in search of the possibility of the large gain.  Entrepreneurs are familiar with this box.

But the most interesting box is the top right box.  The situation described here leads to behavior that is by all accounts completely unintelligible for a person who observes the situation from an emotionally disconnected standpoint.  In this situation, you are facing a choice between a very high probability of losing a large amount, or a certainty that you will lose a smaller amount.   Your chance of losing should you take the gamble is almost certain, but not entirely.  Instead of making the rational favorable choice (a sure loss but for a lower amount), you take a risk and pursue the uncertain choice.  You fear the losses enormously, and there still remains some hope that you won’t lose anything at all if you gamble.  Most of us recognize this for what it is; we call this desperation.

 You can think about this in terms of normal economic exchanges, with gains and losses being in terms of money.  Or alternatively, we can think about it in terms of more abstract political gains and losses.  When considered in this way, the behavior of the Tea Party suddenly becomes clear.  The truth is, they aren’t blind to their predicament.  The Tea Party has two options, accept defeat and relinquish their hold on the debt ceiling, accepting whatever damage they have already done to their brand.  Or, alternatively, they can take a risk and push the President and the Democrats to the very deadline, on the miniscule chance that the Democrats will cave-in and deliver all of the concessions that the Tea Party demands.  Of course, the chance of this happening is almost nil.   The Democrats will almost definitely not cave on the demands, it’s more likely that their fellow Republicans will cave, and the results for the Tea Party brand will be catastrophic (at least in their eyes).  But as we see above, the size of the probability doesn’t  matter.  The only thing that matters is that there exists a possibility.

In this context, the strategy of the Tea party is clear.  It’s not rational, but it’s deeply human.  The problem for them is that their gamble on the debt ceiling is a gamble for all of us, most of whom would rather swallow the sure deal.  We want certainty.  Instead, fear, pride and desperation guide the day.

Giving up on Science

I have to admit to you, I’m a bit flabbergasted by the situation we find ourselves in this evening.  Our Congress today failed to pass any measure to prevent the sequester cuts (cuts they themselves imposed last year as a “so harsh we will definitely have to compromise” sort of motivation).  These cuts, which go into effect tomorrow, will be across the board for domestic spending, but what I want to focus on are the cuts to scientific funding.  The NIH and the NSF, two agencies that make up the bulk of the scientific funding in this country, will see nearly 2 billion dollars in combined cuts tomorrow.  If that doesn’t seem so bad, consider those numbers in comparison to the total funding for the NIH, 30.7 billion dollars.  The 1.6 billion coming out of the NIH accounts for 5% of the budget.  5% of that budget accounts for nearly 1000 grants (by the NIH alone) that will be not be awarded or will have part of their funding rescinded this year.  It will lower funding rates to their lowest in nearly thirty years from already drastically low rates.

Scientists across the country are already getting rejected from grants at a rate of about 1 in 6.  Think about that, these aren’t hacks throwing together proposals at the last minute.  We are talking about leaders of their field regularly getting rejected from career sustaining funding at about the batting average of a pathetic baseball player (166).  And it doesn’t just effect the careers of established scientists, it effects the careers of scientists attempting to get tenure, as well as the careers of scientists in training at all levels, especially PhD’s and post-Doctoral Fellows.   Without grants you can’t do experiments.  Without experiments you can’t publish papers.  Without papers you can’t get jobs.  The implications of this  kind of instability are obvious, people are going to leave science in this country, in large numbers, and for no better reason than we lack the political will (or mental capability) to make big-boy decisions.

And it’s not just scientists who are going to be effected.  Scientific discovery  benefits everybody in this country (and across the world).  Not just translational science either.  Every translational drug or device is built upon decades of backbreaking basic science done by researchers who toil away in virtual obscurity.  MRI, the single greatest diagnostic tool the medical world has ever known is built upon centuries of math, physics, and biology research, and decades of computer science research.  None of the people doing this research could have predicted the MRI, but they knew their work was vitally important.  This is exactly the kind of research we are cutting tomorrow.  Until now, we have been the unquestioned leader in this science worldwide.  The Republicans love to blather on about how America is number 1 at everything, here’s a place where we actually are and they are actively sabotaging it.

I’ve been trying to contemplate the stupidity of this event all evening long and I have to admit that I can’t wrap my brain around the type of mentality that can’t see the long term benefits of investing in science as a society.  Short-sighted appeals to fiscal austerity are baseless and confused.  Science funding boosts the economy by enormous amounts when you project out into coming years.  Think of where we’d be today without computers and the internet (government funded research started both of these things).  The tragic thing is that this doesn’t seem to be just stuck to Congress.  We seem to be forgetting as a country what society is, what investment means, what’s actually worth fighting for.  I’m embarrassed by these cuts.  We should all be embarrassed.

What’s the problem with popular science?

Popular science, pop neuro especially, seems to be stuck as of late in a quagmire of unenthusiastic skepticism.  With criticisms being lobbed for the first time from the outposts of both journalists and scientists, it’s tempting to ask how this situation arose and what should be learned from it.  This question came up during a conversation I was having with my cousin last week and I thought it deserved a bit more reflection.  I should state for the record here that I am an enthusiastic supporter of popular science writing when it is done right, the key phrase there being “done right”.  I get the old complaints, making science interesting and ingestible to a large audience is difficult, especially in the era of short attention spans.  But this does not excuse sloppy ideas.  There are still many science writers who do get it right (my cousin amongst them), and in a terrifically engaging fashion.

Why is it that now, though, after what seemed like nearly a decade long spate of popular neuroscience tomes battering their way onto our bookshelves, do we find that bombastic barrage slowed to a trickle?  Why is it that now, the once rampant hunger for tidy neuro-factoids has faded?  Could it be because much of the pop-neuro field verged on a pseudo-scientific smorgasbord of  self-help cliches?  Certainly it can’t be, human’s can never get enough wild-eyed, optimistic boot-strap pulling, especially not Americans.  In that case,  could it be that we liked the koolaid when we were drinking it, but now, a few years later, we are unhappy with the results ?  It seems like this may be the case.  With the recent betrayals of certain paragons of pop-sci (Jonah Lehrer among them), there seems to be bitter after taste in people’s mouths.  Those out of the know conflate the failings of the messengers with the failings of the field, bringing about a crisis of contextual authority.  Those in the know lament once bright stars who weren’t more careful in their selections and interpretations of singular studies.  Paralysis abounds, demand falls, rinse, repeat.

I’m tempted to think of this period as the awkward adolescence of pop-neuro.  What started with an innocent nativity, the first appearance of a brain scan in a major newspaper, soon grew into an all out youthful overindulgence of every single pretty picture science could pump out, all neatly wrapped in a package that purported to carry within it the meanings of our truest selves.  I think we’re now in the reactionary stage.  The stage where we look back, slightly embarrassed, and hope that no one questions us about the things we did last year.  The stage where we buy a new wardrobe and insist that we never ever thought that wearing dayglow pants was cool (dating myself?).  It’s also the stage where we gain a more mature understanding about the power of the body of knowledge that we are gaining about the brain.  In this stage, we come to terms with the fallacies of the single study proves x, or fMRI showed that you love your iphone because “the love” region of the brain lit up when you looked at it.  We realize that the brain is complicated, too complicated to wrap in any package that feels as good and as tidy and as complete  as we would like.  But we start to recognize that its complexity is its beauty, and that beauty deserves treatment with careful gloved hands and delicate tools, like an antique painting.

Retooling

Hey there, friends (if we have any out there).  This blog has obviously fallen into a state of inaction over the last few months.  Our apologies, real life interfered.  I have decided to take this back up with a slightly different mission.  Many things on here will still be about neuroscience, but much of it will now also be about other things I’m thinking about.  These may be intelligent thoughts, but maybe not.  Hopefully they will be interesting.