Blog power in the service of science?

Taking my cue from Ben Goldacre’s comments at SciBlog08, I’d like to unleash the power of the blogosphere. I want to see if Nature Networkers can shed any light on the interview that I heard early this morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today program (listen to the 4 min item at 7.21 am).

Prof Ford, a writer and broadcaster (and visiting professor in e-learning at Leicester University), converted the electrical signal from a nerve cell into an audible sound and claimed that this revealed a kind of cellular intelligence. As far as I can tell, this ‘finding’ is not based on any kind of peer-reviewed research. It seemed to be pure supposition on the part of Prof Ford.

But my expertise is not is this area. Can anyone out there dig up any support for Prof Ford’s interpretation (I found nothing on Pubmed)? Or am I correct in thinking that this is non-science (aka nonsense)?

(Incidentally, this interview linked in to an interesting discussion on scientific authority—’Hierarchy in Science’—over at LabLit).

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38 Responses to Blog power in the service of science?

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    That Mad Dan Eccles bloke is a bit of a nutter, innit?

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    That Mad Dan Eccles bloke is a bit of a nutter, innit?
    It’s true, Eccles is known for his trenchant views but, compared to some of the utterances of Prof Ford, his comments at LabLit are crystallised reason. Did you listen to the interview?

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    not had time, yet.

  4. Mike Fowler says:

    Stephen, I guess that he’s trying to say that “Everybody says that neural communication is a binary process, but if we record it, slow it down and listen to it, it sounds like an analogue process”.
    But that assumes that people really think it is binary, which I don’t, but I have little formal training in the field. Isn’t neural communication something like a leaky capacitor? Aren’t there different types of synapses (chemical/electrical)? Isn’t this sounding a bit like a straw man?
    However, I love the fact that the BBC iPlayer volume goes up to 11

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    What bothered me was the number of contentious statements that he trotted out. He said neurons were like transistors, which is a massive oversimplification, and claimed that scientists had made fundamental errors by being so reductionist, which seems to me to completely mis-represent modern approaches. And then he went on to claim – on what evidence? – that individual cells were intelligent.
    And there wasn’t a single challenge about the veracity or accuracy of these statements from the interviewer. I can’t imagine any politician on the Today program having such an easy ride.
    I know it was just a 4 minute slot but I do feel that a Prof Ford got away with some very wayward claims.

  6. Mike Fowler says:

    There’s a little more info on the interviewer’s (Tom Feilden) blog, but true – nothing to challenge what the Prof is actually saying.
    It kinda brings us back to all the other discussions about communicating with the public. This guy is getting out there, getting his voice heard, putting science in peoples laps as they sup their soggy cornflakes or drive to work. But he only has 4 minutes to do it in. This is barely enough time for him to play his dodgy sound clips and describe what he thinks they sound like (seagulls? really? has he ever been to the sea?) never mind some sensible discussion about the rights and wrongs of his thought processes.
    To start with, we really need to define what we mean by “think” (his thesis is that “single cells can think”) – which would probably take more than 4 mins. Then we need to ask how he “cut the wings off his butterflies” recorded the signals to understand what they actually tell us…
    It’s tough to simplify a technical message. It’s even tougher when there’s a high risk that the message is nonsense to begin with.

  7. Maxine Clarke says:

    I’m afraid I have long since been so disillusioned by the way science is presented in the media that I no longer listen to or watch it. I read the newspaper in which an article at least has to put a case and quote a reference – or if it doesn’t, one just ignores it. Sorry not to be any help but the programme does sound intriguingly batty!

  8. Maxine Clarke says:

    PS is this an example of how all science would be absorbed by the public (or anyone) if we had no journals, no peer-review process, no “filtering” and no “contextual” comments such as News and Views articles?

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yup. You see, Nature is worth every penny of the subscription.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    @Maxine – I appreciate your disillusionment but if we can’t get the editorial team on a supposedly quality news outlet to pick up on the difference between peer-reviewed science and random speculation, that’s a real shame.
    I still think that the team on the Today program are probably willing to do a better job.
    But, Richard, I wouldn’t really expect them to be reading N&V pieces in Nature—which can still be rather technical—for their material. Maybe a little pressure from the blogosphere will spur them to action…?

  11. Frank Norman says:

    I heard the program and had the same reaction as you Stephen. Jim McNaughty was actually stunned into silence by the end of the interview.
    Is Tom Feilden on NN? Perhaps we should alert him to this discussion and invite comments?

  12. Maxine Clarke says:

    I once worked for a science news medium which shall necessarily be nameless but it is of the very highest quality. I was shocked at the selection process that did (not) go on. “Research” was consistently reported that had no independent validation behind it: no body of literature, no specific “peg” of an article, no “balancing” view by another expert in the field, and so on. Items were selected for their “impact” and “news value”.
    On the other topic of the general public and News and Views articles – I agree that many or even most of these articles are too technical for people who don’t have a relatively high level of scientific education, though the News and Views editors work to three “levels” of articles – we imaginitively call them 1, 2 and 3. Each issue of the journal has a mix of these levels – and “level 1” is defined as “comprehensible for people with an A level (high school age 18) in the subject”.
    But a more serious point: for some years now Nature has been publishing articles about science research in its News features, which are written at the level of a good newspaper. There are two or three of these per issue, usually. Perhaps Nature should publish a lot more articles at this level.

  13. Ruth Francis says:

    The media are reasonably good at making the distinction between peer reviewed science and unsubstantiated claims, and have certainly got better at not reporting real loonies. But the idea that they could approach science with same agenda as a journal is not realistic.
    Today do some great reporting of science – in fact R4 devoted a whole day to the Large Hadron Collider when that opened, including fantastic packages on Today – but do sometimes have their head turned by something a bit whacky or controversial.
    I haven’t listened to the interview but the fact that these kinds of threads aren’t started every morning about the science that’s reported by Today suggests that they don’t get it wrong every time!
    The best way that we can change the reporting of science in the media is if people with solid, peer reviewed research get themselves out there to promote that. Next time you have a big or exciting result why not speak to your press office about how to proactively promote that? Perhaps next time we can read a thread about how well reported your work was.

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    @Frank – Not sure if Tom Feilden is a member here. I left a comment on his blog but there was no response.
    @Maxine – I wonder if Nature could do more. I hadn’t appreciated that the N&V articles were written at 3 levels. I don’t suppose these could be indicated in print? Someone reading a level 3 piece might quickly decide that this format is not for them.
    @Ruth – you make many good points. For sure, R4 does a generally first rate job on science. And you are right that we have a duty to get engaged. I flagged up this interview because it seemed a particularly silly piece of ‘science’ and was surprised (though Maxine clearly wasn’t) that the Today team had decided to go with it. (I urge you to have a listen).
    I certainly support dialogue to make things better and hope that the scientists can help shoulder the responsibility. I did email the program to ask why they had chosen it – will post any reply I get. I have trouble with the Today format more generally since their pieces (even political spots) are often so compressed that it is difficult to get much out of them.

  15. Henry Gee says:

    Hmmm…. I know Prof Ford of old, and all I can say without fear of litigation is that this doesn’t surprise me.
    What irked me was that he justified every single statement by what He Who Must Not Be Named rightly calls the ‘argument from incredulity’: in other words, ‘I can’t believe it, so it can’t be right’. This is precisely the argument that IDers use (with their cue from Paley) to justify the existence of a designer.
    ID: organisms are so complex that I can’t believe they just happened that way without a designer.
    Brian Ford: Testate amoebae are so complex that I can’t believe they can make their tests without consciousness.
    It’s tosh. It always has been tosh, and it always will be tosh.

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    It’s tosh. It always has been tosh, and it always will be tosh.
    Bless you – that sounds like a nasty cold. And bless you for confirming my suspicions.
    By the way, those carnostomids of yours sound devilishly intelligent – but I guess they’re multi-cellular…?

  17. James Aach says:

    Unfortunately, in democracies, science and technical reporting can also affect public policy (and funding). For a humorous take on this linked to my own area of expertise, see Actual Expert Too Boring for TV

  18. Noah Gray says:

    A very simple technical overview: neurons typically communicate with one another using chemical synapses. Many, many synapses produce their own tiny analog signals based on the amount of transmitter released, the density of receptors at the receiving end, combined with a lot of other factors involving the signaling “state” of the postsynaptic compartment.
    All of these analog signals are integrated by the neuron and if a threshold is reached, the neuron then fires an action potential, which is the binary code substrate. This AP may induce an AP in a receiving neuron, or it may not, depending on all of the factors I just outlined above, and on, and on.
    Currently there are no theories in the literature that I know of backed by an analog computational model of neuron-to-neuron communication. The main models of neural communication and information carrying that ARE backed by empirical results and computational modeling include some aspects of spike-timing (the relationship between when a “spike” or AP reaches a neuron and the “state” that the neuron is in, i.e., depolarized or not), spike frequency (does the receiving compartment receive multiple APs from a source at either the same postsynaptic compartment, or a single AP at multiple postsynaptic compartments littered throughout the dendritic tree?) and sparse representation (a notion that neurons don’t fire that often, but when they do, they strongly respond to a finely-tuned range within the stimulation parameters).
    This story is very misleading because it seems to lump single-celled organisms and neurons in the same bin. Neurons are highly specialized cells that have specific functions and rely upon a host of supportive cells to survive. It is true that they adapt to the environment and also respond to local stimuli, but to label that as “intelligence” seems a little far-fetched. Neurons only operate as well as the network in which they are placed. Anyone with epilepsy can tell you that. When the network is unregulated, nothing gets done. When surgery is performed to eliminate the “overactive” part of the network, restoring some of the excitatory/inhibitory balance, some function can be restored. This (and many, many others) is an example of how critical the organization of the network can be, producing computations through interconnectedness (leading to what we typically define as intelligence).
    The issues regarding the responsibility of the media are exactly what I referred to in a recent post. I agree with the defense that Ruth provides, but in this case, all that the R4 needed to do was simply add one quote from any one of the scores of computational neuroscientists residing in London for some balance.
    Perhaps the good doctor was just a little too excited about the recent “”smart slime-mold””: Ig Nobel

  19. Ian Brooks says:

    Fiddlesticks! I read through all the comments preparing a scathing rebuttal of the good Professors nonsense, interspersed with learned discussion of cellular neuroscience, signal transduction &co., and I find our own dear Dr. Gray has beaten me to it!
    Nicely put Noah.

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    @James – You nevertheless allude (indirectly?) to a serious point which is that the media can be too obsessed with style over substance (though a little style with your substance is a good combination!)
    Thanks for that Noah – erudite and eloquent. I’m sure you would have put it just as well Ian!

  21. Ian Brooks says:

    Um…I doubt it 🙂 There would have been more swearing to start with…

  22. Stephen Curry says:

    But is it not important for the public to see that scientists, just like everyone else, are prone to colourful language? Presumably your vocabulary extends beyond f***lesticks…?

  23. Maxine Clarke says:

    Thanks, too, Noah. I am only sorry that your excellent and educational explanation pre-empted Professor Lord Brooks from providing us with a linguistically rich narrative characteristic of that gentleman. Maybe next time.
    I just wanted to add that I have nothing against the Today show in particular. I don’t think I have ever listened to it. I have, however, in a previous (and relatively long ago) era watched and listened to scientific and other “factual” programmes and made a global decision to ignore the lot. I do not watch the news, for example. I prefer to read it in the newspapers. So my comments about this radio show were general ones – I am quite prepared to agree that 99 per cent of their science interviews are excellent if you all say so; but clearly this one was not.

  24. Henry Gee says:

    By the way, those carnostomids of yours sound devilishly intelligent – but I guess they’re multi-cellular…?
    Thanks for the plug, Stephen! I can assure you that carnostomids are multicellular, fictional, and unintelligent – just following the evolutionary imperative. If I had to take a view on intelligence, I would go in the opposite direction to Prof Ford and say that many of the things we think denote intelligence are nothing of the kind, e.g. stone-tool manufacture. But I wouldn’t want to go that far here because, as I have said, and pace Noah’s elegant explanation, Brian Ford’s broadcast eccentricity is entirely untainted by anything resemblong knowledge, or even logic.

  25. Stephen Curry says:

    But is it not important for the public to see that scientists, just like everyone else, are prone to colourful language?
    If I might be so bold as to reply to my own comment, I think it is important that scientists are perceived as like other people. That said, however, I was struck by a piece in The Scientist (mentioned recently on LabLit‘) that made a plea for robust but polite discourse:

    Integrity, humility and respect layered on top of our necessary skepticism will encourage open dialog and creativity, and provide a solid foundation upon which to persuade the rest of the world about the validity of science.

    That seems like a good way to proceed – and, I think, characterises most of the exchanges on NN.

  26. Ian Brooks says: tempting… so tempting… if they keep pitching slow balls I must bat…
    …must bite tongue…

  27. Stephen Curry says:

    Commendable self-restraint, my esteemed colleague.

  28. Austin Elliott says:

    Always a delight to see an old trick backwards, with added layers of hand-waving balderdash.
    Back in the day, people who voltage-clamped cells or bits of tissue often used to have a sound output on their voltage clamp amplifier that related to how “well” the amplifier was commanding the cell’s membrane potential to take up the intended / programmed values. So when you walked past an electrophysiology lab you would hear a cycle of two tones, one low and one higher, as periodic voltage steps were applied. The idea was that hearing the regular noise told you it was all working OK. If the voltage clamp began to go a bit “wobbly” then the tones would change and the experimenter would be alerted.
    It was, though, seriously irritating if you had to be in the lab but it wasn’t your experiment.

  29. Åsa Karlström says:

    Noah Gray said>
    It is true that they adapt to the environment and also respond to local stimuli, but to label that as “intelligence” seems a little far-fetched. Neurons only operate as well as the network in which they are placed.
    This thing has been mentioned about the “intelligent bacteria” that can change and adapt to thier environment, and the schism in the microbiology world about using that word there….
    See, the key thing that annoys me is this – what is intelligence? I mean, I understand that it is catchy to be able to say “wow, these cells are intelligent and are alive” but apart from the fun factor – what would it really mean? And in this context specifically.
    All in all, aren’t we using the idea that fish (to take another example but from the mulitcellular place) are not too intelligent and therefore it is ok to do things to them? Like eat them. Whereas most of us don’t find it ok to eat intelligent animals like monkeys…
    I might be out of line but the interview annoyed me very much and I really hope that it will be refrained from talking about “bacteria with intelligence that take up DNA around it since it is so smart”. Don’t get me wrong, I admire them enormously but I wouldn’t really call the bacteria smart. What they manage to do in order to avoid killing is, however, efficient and nifty.

  30. Ian Brooks says:

    What they manage to do in order to avoid killing is, however, efficient and nifty
    AKA evolution…

  31. Stephen Curry says:

    @Austin – good to know that the conversion to audio has some utility in the lab.
    @Åsa – that’s an interesting point. For sure, bacteria are well adapted to their environmental niches (as Ian so pithily remarked) but clearly that’s not the same thing as intelligence, in the way that most intelligent people would understand it (if that’s not a circular argument…).

  32. Frank Norman says:

    Just show me a bacterium that has its own blog and then I’ll believe it’s intelligent.

  33. Stephen Curry says:

    Alas, there is not a necessary connection between blogging and intelligence…

  34. Åsa Karlström says:

    Brooks> my point exactly.
    Stephen> You’d be surprised how many times I hear the words “since bacteria are so smart” and others like it…. Usually I find it harmless, but since this whole debate about “intelligence” and “intelligen creatures who roams the earth” I get a little nervous. It’s one of those words that can be used over and over again and all of a sudden that is the expected word for it.
    I mean, it does sound fairly nice; neurons are intelligent. After all, the do exist in the brain, right?!

  35. Frank Norman says:

    Well, I see that plants are now blogging…

  36. Stephen Curry says:

    @Frank – Well that is certainly a step up from converting nerve signals to sound!
    @Åsa – After all, they do exist in the brain, right?!
    That was my understanding too. Though some people have them located in other parts of the body…

  37. Ian Brooks says:

    That was my understanding too. Though some people have them located in other parts of the body…
    Kind of 🙂

  38. Stephen Curry says:

    Well it would appear that the good Professor Ford is not the only one converting signals into sounds and being reported on the BBC this week. Astronomers had got in on the act and are are now listening to stars.
    Fortunately this time there is ot hyperbole, no BS about intelligence. Though they are often scanning the skies in search of intelligent life, in this case no claims are being made about the intelligence of these heavenly bodies (thank God!). Instead there is a clear explanation that the technique is able to provide insights into what’s going on inside the stars.
    Well done BBC (this time) – good job!

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