The Neuroscience Devils


As of today, the Neuroscience Devils site is closing its gates. This blog started as an experiment that Neuroskeptic and I discussed after I ended my spell as the Devil’s Neuroscientist. It was an attempt to give a voice to people with contrarian views, those unsettled by the fast changes affecting science and academia, or those who feel they might have been victimized by “data parasites” and “methodological terrorism”. The offer of giving people a protected platform to voice their concerns anonymously was genuine and well-intended. But the experiment has failed. That’s fine – most experiments do.

The furor about the Susan Fiske letter and some other vocal opposition to elements of open science, nevertheless highlights the desperate need for more discussion of these issues. The scientific community appears to be quite polarized these days. Perhaps not as badly as some other aspects of political life but there are clear fault lines. Dr Fiske’s letter was unnecessarily aggressive and her choice of words (especially in the infamous “leaked” version) unseemly for someone in her position – but it wouldn’t necessarily have been for an anonymous devil. The whole issue clearly underlined for me that there remain many people with concerns about where science is going. One of the main criticisms of her letter was that she painted “data detectives” in broad strokes and briefly hinted at unverifiable anecdotes of people being victimized. Such general, anonymous accusations are unhelpful. In my view, however, anonymous posts about some specific events could have been far more useful to spark a serious discussion. I had hoped that by giving this anonymous platform to people who are afraid to speak up against the open science zeitgeist (and trust me, I know a good number of such people) this could take us forward.

But I can understand that people are also uncomfortable speaking up even under these conditions. There could be many factors at play, perhaps not least of all the fact that some may not have trusted me to maintain their cover. I would reject any insinuations on that front, as I would have protected any author’s identity with all my power and I would have also accepted anonymous submissions. But still, maybe I was the wrong person to run this project. Then again, perhaps people simply felt this was pointless – and perhaps it was. However, the fact that only tumbleweed inhabits these parts also suggests to some that there simply aren’t any real stories to be told and that all these assertions of post-publication peer abuse are hogwash. I don’t know what the truth is but I can’t blame anyone for sharing this interpretation. Either way, it seems blatantly obvious that there remains a great need to continue this discussion because something remains to be very rotten in the state of science. All is definitely not well with open science either. Several months ago a friend of mine said that for post-publication peer-view to succeed “there is a need for more forgiveness”. I wholeheartedly agree. It is perhaps telling that even though this friend planned to write a blog post about this, they never did.

Anyway, I will leave this blog for posterity but as of now it is discontinued. While it wasn’t much work (obviously), I simply don’t want this drain on my attention anymore. The political uproar of recent months has caused me to withdraw from much of the open science social media, especially in the past month. I still believe this movement is important but I simply can’t bring up the will or the emotion to care about this very much right now. I will conserve any mood I have for this for my own blog. So hereby I bid you farewell. I am deeply grateful to the author of the sole submission to this blog for their contribution.

Devil Sam

The devils of neuroscience have been exorcised

New site design!

Just a quick service announcement: I have updated the theme of the site and added some pictures to help introduce the mood. Many thanks for Kate Storrs for creating these fantastic (and very creepy) images!

There are more where these came from and I may spice up future posts with them unless people submit their posts with their own images…


Edit – 16-07-2015: I am told some people have seen adverts on this site, some of which are bordering on the offensive. I have yet to see adverts on any of my WP sites on any platform so I don’t know why and when they appear. I am very sorry if these are bothering you. One solution I highly recommend is using Adblock for Firefox (Chrome probably has similar options).

Do we need more “Lived Experience” in Neuroscience?

A recent paper and a subsequent blogpost by Neuroskeptic brought the idea of mental health patients’ involvement in Neuroscience research to the fore of twitter debate. At many scientific meetings at conferences, this is a perennial issue that crops up: Should scientists be more worried about making patients an active part of the research process? Should patient consultations guide mental health research?

Neuroskeptic raises the very good point that there actually are many researchers who are mental health patients themselves – including himself. The simple fact of having depression, however, does not immediately convey a deeper understanding of the condition’s neuroscience.

And in fact, Neuroskeptic says (and I agree) that the idea that researchers need to include patients in the research process can seem paternalistic.

Yes – mental health problems make it harder to have an active voice in the research process. But individuals with, for example autism, (granted, not necessarily a “mental health problem” per se) are involved in autism research, and making incredible contributions to the field. Out of their own volition, without a “healthy” researcher going out and dragging them into the field.

However, I have some further issues with the cry for patient involvement in the research process.

For one, the whole idea presupposes a lack of empathy in the researchers that I don’t think is present. Of course, it is impossible to vicariously experience the physical symptoms of depression and its effects on mood without suffering from it. But in the course of an fMRI experiment, a neuroscientist will likely spend multiple hours with upwards of 20 individuals with depression. To say these interactions do not provide researchers with some degree of understanding of the issues concerning those individuals would be false.

In fact, one big issue with the idea of “experts by experience”, as the authors of the original paper put it, is that patients experience diseases remarkably differently. One of the most-repeated tropes about autism is that if you meet one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum. Being one of those patients does not make that person an expert.

I also think it’s important to keep in mind the type of research that’s being conducted. Can individuals with psychosis contribute to research into the clinical treatment process of psychosis? Certainly, and this research already includes qualitative assessments of patient report.

Can individuals with psychosis contribute to research into the neurotransmitter behind psychosis? Not in a special way that scientists without psychosis can’t.

Fundamental research is often not immediately linked to treatment or improvements of quality of life for patients. Scientists usually have a good sense for what the research agenda should be, without special efforts to incorporate the “lived experience” of patients.

Ultimately, we all want patients and people who have recovered from mental health issues to succeed in life, and if they want they should be able to become neuroscientists. But one is not an expert in a disease without studying it in depth.

Welcome to the Neuroscience Devils!

Welcome to the Neuroscience Devils (thanks to Neuroskeptic for that name)! This blog will contain anonymous guest posts by neuroscience and psychology researchers writing in the spirit of the now defunct Devil’s Neuroscientist. The idea is simple: posters may argue or rant against the prevailing views in the field concerning science policy, issues with the research community, or even specific scientific questions. Basically just about any topic is fine that challenges the general dogma or zeitgeist, such as “Why we should not share our data,” or “There is no replication crisis,” or “Bayesian inference is like a religion,” or “Big hype research area X everybody else does is complete nonsense.” You are especially welcome to express views you feel you can’t say publicly under your own name. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with me (you wouldn’t know that anyway unless I tell you explicitly). Just be respectful and don’t slander.

The invitation to post is open to anyone although ideally they should be from the fields of neuroscience or psychology unless your post is very generally about scientific research. The style of your post, how long it is, how funny it tries to be etc, is all up to you. There are only a few very basic ground rules:

1. Don’t use profanity or name-calling, or really any kind of abusive language.

2. Don’t advocate truly immoral, deeply unethical, and/or outright illegal things.

3. Keep it general. This isn’t the venue for personal vendettas. Please keep it respectful and fair, even (or especially) if you are joking.

4. This blog won’t advocate pseudoscience. I won’t let this turn into an anti-vaxer or climate change denial platform (although the latter isn’t neuroscience anyway). If you want to “challenge dogma” on such topics, your post better come with some solid evidence!

If you have a post, or just the idea for one, please contact me, Sam Schwarzkopf, at the email below. I will copy and paste your post from the documents you email me. I created a specific email account for this blog, which I will never check from my office and thus the information never passes through my university’s network. I promise to keep any correspondence with me about this blog in the strictest confidence. However, if that still worries you, you can also go through an intermediary you trust and/or email me from an anonymous account.

One final thing: for now I decided to turn off comments. It feels to me that it would be too complex for me to host discussions of other people’s posts. I may change that in the future and if you really feel you want to allow discussion of your own post I can turn it on just for that on request.

Anyway, I hope to hear from many Devils! Please follow @NeuroDevils on Twitter to hear about new posts. Email your posts and inquiries to:

neurodevils -at- gmail -dot- com

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