Who is getting hired in neuroscience?

I am always a bit jealous by how organized the field of academic economics is when compared to, well, anyone else. To get an academic job, young economists put up their one “job paper” into some sort of database for prospective employers to evaluate (also, they do not do postdocs). This gives them a large dataset to analyze. fivethirtyeight has a nice analysis of what the people looking for an academic economics job are working on (there’s more in the link):

Neuroscience does not have an equivalent database, unfortunately. But I do run the neurorumblr, which aggregates neuroscience faculty job postings. They often break down what type of research they are looking for candidates to accomplish into broad categories. There are currently ~95 job postings: here is what they are looking for.

Neuroscience jobs
I was surprised by the number of computational positions; a large chunk of them are computational and cognitive which leads me to think they may be EEG/fMRI postings? I’m not sure.

Also, “cognitive” is the new “psychology”.


What is the future of the brain?

I recently read Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman’s new book, The Future of the Brain and was so enthusiastic about it I decided to write a review. And got a bit carried away. Oh well. Hopefully it makes sense:

The past two decades has seen an explosion in tools that can dissect and record signals in the brain. Diverse sets of molecules that allow investigation of tens to hundreds of neurons simultaneously has drastically improved our spatial knowledge of the brain. Light-activated ion channels combined with genetics have allowed us to precisely label and manipulate specific types of neurons. What was once a field devoted to such physics-era concepts of electrodes and membrane voltages is slowly moving in the direction of molecular biology, with signaling cascades and custom-made viruses being the tools of the day.

What we would like to understand, though, is what are the tools of tomorrow? Where is neuroscience heading? The Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, collects essays from a series of neuroscientists on the direction research is moving. Importantly for a field as variegated as neuroscience, every essay has a distinct take on what is the important direction in which to move. But several themes emerge.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me stop and think. Most books about the brain I kind of skim because I already generally know the topic and few new ideas are put forth. The Future of the Brain important thoughts that need to be grappled with and is filled with things that I did not know.

If you are still looking to get a present for someone who is interested in neuroscience, I’d give them this book.

Monday open question: does fMRI activation have a consistent meaning?

Reports from fMRI rely, somewhat implicitly, on a rate-coding model of populations of neurons in the brain. More activity means more activation, and more activation usually means roughly the same thing. Useful, but misleading. How much should we rely on the interpretation that an area having similar activation in two different behaviors means the same thing? Neuroskeptic covers one such finding:

The authors are Choong-Wan Woo and colleagues of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Woo et al. say that, based on a new analysis of fMRI brain scanning data, they’ve found evidence inconsistent with the popular theory that the brain responds to the ‘pain’ of social rejection using the same circuitry that encodes physical pain. Rather, it seems that although the two kinds of pain do engage broadly the same areas, they do so in very different ways.

Roughly, the use a cool new statistical technique to measure activity in more oblique ways: combinations of activity have more meaning than they may have in the past.

The basic question here is: given that we know small regions can have multiple ‘cognitive’ meanings depending on the context of the entire network – or specifically which neurons in the region itself – are active, how much can we compare ‘activity’ signals between (or even within!) behaviors?

Obviously sometimes it will be entirely fine. Other times it won’t. Is there an obvious line?

Why is reporting on health and science so bad? Because the reporters can’t do their jobs.

Imagine this scenario: a sports reporter is asked to cover an emerging conflict in the Middle East. The sports reporter, never particularly keen on international affairs, is on a deadline and looks to see what they can use. There’s in-person video of the central events in question, but our journalist friend doesn’t have the necessary background or context to fully understand what happened. Is there something else? A press release from the US government and from one side of the conflict in the Middle East? Sounds like our sportsman is good to go! Just copy and paste the exciting bits, add in the little bit of context that our intrepid soul already has, and bingo. News has been reported!

Later, it turns out that our poor reporter has been duped! The press release from the Middle East was nothing but PR, empty words of propaganda to make things seem more important and interesting than they really are! Our friend from the sports section sighs, wishing he had asked someone who knew about this kind of thing who would have known what to look out for.

In a similar vein, Vox has an article asking why so many articles on health (and, let’s admit it, science) are junk. The culprit is identified as clearly as in our example above: coverage by those who don’t know, or don’t care. See:

The researchers found that university press offices were a major source of overhype: over one-third of press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.

…When a press release included actual health advice, 58 percent of the related news articles would do so too (even if the actual study did no such thing). When a press release confused correlation with causation, 81 percent of related news articles would. And when press releases made unwarranted inferences about animal studies, 86 percent of the journalistic coverage did, too.

…Unfortunately, however, this isn’t a perfect world. Many journalists are often covering science in the morning, and the courts in the afternoon. We are under heavy pressure to meet multiple deadlines every day, and some of us lack the time, sources, or background to properly vet the studies we’re reporting on.

So we rely on scientists and on press offices to guide us through research, even though, clearly, we shouldn’t.

Wait – what? The problem is the scientists and press offices? Because reporters are too overworked or unqualified to do their job properly? It sounds from the quote above that reporters are just parroting what a press release says without actually reading the source material. It sounds like reporters aren’t doing their jobs. But rather than accept the blame, they are trying to avoid the responsibility.

Unless I am mistaken, the job of a journalist is not to overlay press releases with a thin veneer of impartiality. Their job is to synthesize new information with their existing bank of expertise in order to convey to a naive audience what is or isn’t novel or important. Conversely, the job of a PR department – which derives from the incentive structure – is quite clearly to hype new research. Does anyone think that a press release from a corporation is written to be as truthful as possible, rather than putting as good of a spin on it as possible?

If the reporter knew enough about the field, they would be able to check whether or not the things they were writing were true. Where in the paper does it say this correlation exists? Is there an exaggeration? How much?

If they are unable to do that, what are they doing? Why should I read science or health journalism if they are unable to discern fact from fiction?

Fight club for flies

I’ve been watching a lot of fly behavior recently and it’s pretty spectacular how easy it is to imagine you’re looking at a mammal (just smaller, smellier, and with more legs.) They wander around, clean themselves off, rub their greedy little hands together, fight, and sing.

Watch the very good video above to see how these guys fight each other. It’s about work from David Anderson’s lab on aggression and tachykinin, aka Substance P.

How do ideas spread?

spread of language on twitter

Cultural transmission is something I’ve written about before. An arXiv paper has a clever way of studying it on twitter: follow the creation of electronic language.

For example, the abbreviation ikr, meaning “I know, right?” occurs six times more frequently in the Detroit area than in the US overall; the phonetic spelling suttin, meaning “something”, occurs five times more frequently in New York City; and the emoticon^-^, meaning nervous or shy and of Korean origin, is four times more common in Southern California.

At the beginning of the study, the abbreviation ctfu, which stands forcracking the fuck up or laughing, appeared mainly in the Cleveland area but by 2012 was being used in Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic. However, ctfu is rare in the large cities to the west of Cleveland, such as Detroit and Chicago.

But the team also say that new words tend to be shared between metropolitan areas that have a similar racial mix. In fact, the proportion of African-Americans as the strongest predictor of similar usage. “Examples of linguistically linked city pairs that are geographically distant but demographically similar include Washington D.C. and New Orleans (high proportions of African-Americans), Los Angeles and Miami (high proportions of Hispanics), and Boston and Seattle (relatively few minorities, compared with other large cities),” say Einstein and pals.

On twitter, does the racial mix of two cities predict the likelihood of irl (see what I did there) friends/family? Or is it, thanks to the internet, more about the connection of people with similar interests/culture?

(ht freakonometrics)

No one will remember you because society doesn’t care

A few years ago I was in Washington DC and, being a bit of a tourist, I randomly picked up a fact card about one of our exciting presidents. Obviously the excitement mounted: who did I get? My best buddy LBJ? The notoriously rotund Taft? The Ur-President Washington? Nope, I got mighty Chester. A. Arthur! Wait, who?

I come from a family where History is important. Some of the first fatherly I got was that I should set my PIN number to something like the year of the Battle of Hastings because obviously that is easy to remember. He also likes to declaim that every educated person must surely know the year of the Norman Invasion. I can recite the Presidents back to Cleveland (though I sometimes forget Harding). I’m pretty sure my father can recite every president from Washington to the present day, in order.

And I had not the slightest idea that this Arthur guy ever even existed. I thought this card must be a joke until I pulled up Wikipedia and there he was (your trivia for the day: he first became President after Garfield was assassinated.)

Who remembers the presidents

Clearly I could remember the guy. But why him versus anyone else? Now that is socially determined. Roediger and DeSoto examined data from 1974, 1991, and 2009 that asked people to name who was president in which year. And what is interesting is that there is a very similar ‘forgetting’ curve: each generation generally remembers what is recent, and it drops off steeply after that.

But look at that tail! Look at how the baby boomers remember presidents some time back and then it just collapses. And Generation X is kind of similar – with a few more remembering Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman. And then Millenials have a fairly persistent memory up through Carter that the Boomers never would have had!

If you want more evidence that the Boomers have taken over pop culture and instilled their values as the important values in a way that previous generations didn’t – there it is. We remember their Presidents, not ours.

This is also pretty clear when participants are asked to freely recall Presidents. Which names do people know? Obviously, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are big ones. There are also bumps for John Quincy Adams and, surprisingly, Polk (!). But there is a persistent memory across generations for the Boomer presidents in a somewhat surprising way*.

And as history goes, so go some names. Today, no one remembers Filmore or Pierce, Arthur or Harding (whew). And we can quantitatively make forgetting curves to guess how long Presidents will be remembered. Kennedy will stick around but my man LBJ is soon to be unjustly forgotten. Such is life.

How long will the presidents be remembered

* Sorry I can’t make this quantitative; the “data” section of their supplemental methods appears to be missing…


Roediger, H., & DeSoto, K. (2014). Forgetting the presidents Science, 346 (6213), 1106-1109 DOI: 10.1126/science.1259627

Hand-to-hand combat between animals and cells

eosinophils and c elegans



From an article on white blood cells (eosinophils) attacking nematodes, it is like something out of a horror movie. What is amazing about this is that these cells are attacking an animal with a nervous system and exist on roughly the same size scale! It kind of blows my mind that nervous systems and single cells coexist in this manner. Which returns to the question of: why does something at that size need a nervous system at all?

Here’s a new research program for you –  the neurological correlates of hand-to-hand combat with single-celled organisms…

[via reddit]

Unrelated to all that, 11/30 edition

The Superiority of Economists

We begin by documenting the relative insularity of economics, using bibliometric data. Next we analyze the tight management of the field from the top down, which gives economics its characteristic hierarchical structure. Economists also distinguish themselves from other social scientists through their much better material situation (many teach in business schools, have external consulting ac- tivities), their more individualist worldviews, and in the confidence they have in their discipline’s ability to fix the world’s problems. Taken together, these traits constitute what we call the superiority of economists, where economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement…

Economists command some of the highest levels of compensation in American arts and science faculties, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In fact, they even “earn more and have better career prospects” than physicists and mathematicians (Freeman, ibid.); only computer scientists and engineers do better. Unlike many academics in the theoretical sciences and humanities, many prominent economists have the opportunity to obtain income from consulting fees, private investment and partnerships, or from membership on corporate boards…In this essay, we explore the shifting relations between economics and the other social sciences in four specific dimensions. First, we document the relative insularity of economics and its dominant position within the network of the social sciences in the United States…

Economists, by contrast, tend to see institutionalized hierarchies as emergent, truthful indicators of some underlying worth, and consequently are obsessed with them. It is worth noting that in no other social sciences can one find the extraordinary volume of data and research about rankings (of journals, departments, and individuals) that economists produce, not to mention RePEc (a research archive) and the continued existence of a substantial, if marginalized, subfield focused on the history of economics.

Hilarious. Also reinforces my “even if economics are a science, they are not one of ‘the sciences'” view; it is too insular and lacks participation in the broader intellectual trajectory of Science. via Claudia Sahm

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How words make color

Go check out this great interactive explanation of how words represent colors in English versus in Chinese.

Color words in Mandarin Color words in English

Interestingly, the most common color words in Chinese are for red, green, and blue while in English they are blue, green and pink!

[via FlowingData]