Clarity of thought, clarity of language


Clarity of language leads to clarity of thought: this is the lesson of apply mathematics and logic to science. But even when we don’t have those tools, we can be careful about the words that we use when describing behavior and the brain. Words can be ambiguous, can mean different things to different people, or just plain misused Here is a list of 50 terms not to use. Here are some that I like:

(7) Chemical imbalance. Thanks in part to the success of direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns by drug companies, the notion that major depression and allied disorders are caused by a “chemical imbalance” of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, has become a virtual truism in the eyes of the public

(16) Love molecule. Over 6000 websites have dubbed the hormone oxytocin the “love molecule” (e.g., Morse, 2011). Others have named it the “trust molecule” (Dvorsky, 2012), “cuddle hormone” (Griffiths, 2014), or “moral molecule” (Zak, 2013). Nevertheless, data derived from controlled studies imply that all of these appellations are woefully simplistic (Wong, 2012; Jarrett, 2015; Shen, 2015). Most evidence suggests that oxytocin renders individuals more sensitive to social information (Stix, 2014), both positive and negative.

(19) No difference between groups. Many researchers, after reporting a group difference that does not attain conventional levels of statistical significance, will go on to state that “there was no difference between groups.” Similarly, many authors will report that a non-significant correlation between two variables means that “there was no association between the variables.” But a failure to reject the null hypothesis does not mean that the null hypothesis, strictly speaking, has been confirmed.

(27) The scientific method. Many science textbooks, including those in psychology, present science as a monolithic “method.” Most often, they describe this method as a hypothetical-deductive recipe, in which scientists begin with an overarching theory, deduce hypotheses (predictions) from that theory, test these hypotheses, and examine the fit between data and theory. If the data are inconsistent with the theory, the theory is modified or abandoned. It’s a nice story, but it rarely works this way

(35) Comorbidity. This term, which has become ubiquitous in publications on the relations between two or more mental disorders (appearing in approximately 444,000 citations in Google Scholar), refers to the overlap between two diagnoses, such as major depression and generalized anxiety disorder…Nevertheless, “comorbidity” can mean two quite different things. It can refer to either the (a) covariation (or correlation) between two diagnoseswithin a sample or the population or (b) co-occurrence between two diagnoses within an individual

(45) Scientific proof. The concepts of “proof” and “confirmation” are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting (McComas, 1996). Hence, it is understandable whyPopper (1959) preferred the term “corroboration” to “confirmation,” as all theories can in principle be overturned by new evidence.


And some quibbles –

(4) Brain region X lights up. Many authors in the popular and academic literatures use such phrases as “brain area X lit up following manipulation Y”…Hence, from a functional perspective, these areas may be being “lit down” rather than “lit up.”

I will actually go to bat for “brain region X lights up”, despite its uninformed use in the popular press. Despite the fact that to a professional audience it sounds amateurish, it has a clear meaning in terms of the delta in brain oxidation levels.

(9) Genetically determined. Few if any psychological capacities are genetically “determined”; at most, they are genetically influenced. Even schizophrenia, which is among the most heritable of all mental disorders, appears to have a heritability of between 70 and 90% as estimated by twin designs

I thought that we had all agreed that nothing is 100% genetic, and genetically determined was equivalent to saying genetics have a “strong” impact on some behavior.

(18) Neural signature. One group of authors, after observing that compliance with social norms was associated with activations in certain brain regions (lateral orbitofrontal cortex and right dorsolateral cortex), referred to the “neural signature” of social norm compliance…Nevertheless, identifying a genuine neural signature would necessitate the discovery of a specific pattern of brain responses that possesses nearly perfect sensitivity and specificity for a given condition or other phenotype.

Is this the meaning of neural signature? I would never have used neural signature in this way. To me, a neural signature is a response that contains information about some stimulus or behavior.

(47) Empirical data. “Empirical” means based on observation or experience. As a consequence, with the possible exception of information derived from archival sources, all psychological data are empirical (what would “non-empirical” psychological data look like?).

Data from models is not empirical…

Before using a word, there are many things you must take into account: your audience, the way other words constrain the meaning of the chosen word, and so on. Even if I disagree on the meaning of, say, ‘neural signature’ I would not use it because it has such a multiplicity of meanings! Academic writing should always define its terms clearly and carefully; but lay writing must be equally careful not to allow the read to imply things that are not there. Be careful.


Lilienfeld SO, & et al (2015). Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases
Frontiers in Psychology


How to use Twitter (for scientists!)

People try to use Twitter all the time and often give up with a shrug: it seems useless to get anything from that noise, with their voice getting lost in the roar. It’s a shame, because Twitter is one of the most useful ways to keep up-to-date on science. Remember how you used to have to wait for a physical magazine to be delivered to you to get up-to-date scientific research? And how unbearably slow that now feels? That’s how scientific life feels without Twitter, once you’ve used it.

In that sprit, here is my advice on how to use Twitter.

1. Find some interesting people to follow.

Here are a few lists of scientists on Twitter. When following, note how often they tweet. Also note how often they retweet other people or respond to other people’s questions.

2. Next, if you see a conversation that you think is interesting, see who else participated in the conversation.

Are they interesting? Perhaps try to participate in the conversation if you can. But be warned, jokes often fall flat.

3. Interact with people.

Twitter is useful because of the people and their interactions, not the content per se.

4. Have something worthwhile to say. Say it.

Whether it is content that hasn’t made the rounds yet, or new content of your own, if you have something useful to say let other people know! Again, this is why twitter is useful.

5. Know your niche.

It helps if you have something unique to say. What do you know about that a lot of other people don’t? Often this is a hobby or what you are passionate about. Cheese-making? Gustatory cortex? Anatomy? Be broad, and be specific.

6. Try for a while. It takes time.

Twitter kind of sucks at the beginning. It’s like being the new kid at school: everyone already knows each other and is having a great time talking. You try to say something – and kind of get ignored in favor of a friend. But if you keep at it – and keep interacting with people – you’ll grow your network and find out how useful twitter can be. Remember that every voice is important and interesting!

3quarksdaily nominates best science writing

3quarksdaily has their nominations up for the year’s Best Science Writing. You should go read, and vote.

I started to aggregate the list of articles but it looks like the majority are related to neuroscience or ecology! That’s a crazy large number. Sorry chemistry and physics and economics and sociology and anthropology and molecular biology and biochemistry and meteorology and geology and oceanography.

The public sphere of neuroscience

I have complained in the past about the lack of a blogosphere in neuroscience. And it’s not just bad for the community – it’s bad for the scientists, too. Here is a short selection from a piece on how twitter and blogs are not just an add-on to academic research:

A lot of early career scholars, in particular, worry that exposing their research too early, in too public a manner, will either open them to ridicule, or allow someone else to ‘steal’ their ideas.  But in my experience, the most successful early career humanists have already started building a form of public dialogue in to their academic practise – building an audience for their work, in the process of doing the work itself…

Perhaps the best example of this is Ben Schmidt, and his hugely influential blog: Sapping Attention.  His blog posts contributed to his doctorate, and will form part of his first book.  In doing this, he has crafted one of the most successful academic careers of his generation – not to mention the television consultation business, and world-wide intellectual network. Or Helen Rogers, whose maintains two blogs: Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-Century Prison – on her own research; and also the collaborative blog, Writing Lives, created as an outlet for the work of her undergraduates…The Many Headed Monster, the collective blog authored by Brodie Waddell, Mark Hailwood,  Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, is rapidly emerging as one of the sites where 17th century British history is being re-written.   While Jennifer Evans is writing her next book via her blog, Early Modern Medicine.

The most impressive thing about these blogs (and the academic careers that generate them), is that there is no waste – what starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it…But as importantly, blogs are part of establishing a public position, and contributing to a debate. Twitter is in some ways the same – or at least, like blogging, Twitter is good for making communities, and finding collaborators; and letting other people know what you are doing.  But, it also has another purpose.

Really, go read it all, it’s great.

Social media isn’t just a place to joke around and have fun – it’s a place to get into discussions and get your ideas out there. It’s a place to have an outsized voice if you have an outsized opinion. Papers are one way to get your ideas out there – but social media is more powerful. And a Latourian reading of science is that if your ideas don’t get out there, they don’t exist.

Although not in the influential category of the examples above, let me offer myself as an example. I often write about things that are on my mind. I put my thoughts and ideas out there to try to get them into a coherent form. And people interact and discuss my ideas with me, and help me refine them (even if they don’t know it!). I even found out that someone gave a lab meeting on one of my blog posts! Even more, I’ve found that over the past year, people will come up to me at conferences and tell me that they read my blog…which is honestly really weird for me (but it’s fine!). The point is: just being willing to talk on the internet has real-world consequences for your scientific ideas.

Someone published a comment in GenomeBiology today proposing a Kardashian Index: how many social media followers you have above what you’d expect from the number of scientific citations you have. It’s true to a certain extent: you pop the world “professor” into your twitter profile and it seems like an automatic boost in followers. But they make having an outsized following out to be a bad thing! It seems to me that means that you’re doing it right.

How to write, lessons from the muckrakers edition

I read a collection of essays by Jessica Mitford during my travels. The book Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking was not only a delight to read, it was full of some the most delightful prose I’ve seen. Here are some suggestions she gave on writing in the introduction:

Choice of subject is of cardinal importance, as one does by far one’s best work when besotted by and absorbed in the matter at hand… In my Yale class,…those who tackled hot issues on campus such as violations of academic freedom, or failure to implement affirmative-action hiring policies, turned in some excellent work; but the lad who decided to investigate “waste in the Yale dining halls” was predictably unable to make much of this trivial topic.

Gathering background information

The goal is to know, if possible, more about your subject than the target of the investigation does. To this end, I soak up books and articles on the subject, type out relevant passages, and accumulate a store of knowledge before seeking an interview with said target.

Picking other people’s brains

I have found experts to be amazingly generous with their time – they actually seem to like the chance to expound their knowledge to us ignorami, although I recall one rather disappointing experience: wanting to know what 6 percent of a million is, I called the Department of Higher Mathematics at the University of California. The person who answered said, “Oh it’s six hundred. No it’s six thousand…no, wait a minute, I think it’s sixty thousand. Could you call back after lunch?” I have long since forgotten the definitive, post-lunch answer. But thereafter I relied on a thirteen-year-old friend in junior high school, who knows such things off the top of his head.


Take time to think through exactly what it is that you want to learn from the interview; I write out and number in order the questions I intend to ask. For Unfriendly Witnesses…I list the questions graduated from Kind to Cruel. Kind questions are designed to lull your quarry into a conversational mood…by the time you get to the Cruel questions […] your interlocutor will find it hard to duck and may blurt out a quotable nugget.


One technique I have found useful in the early stages of an inquiry is to write letters to friends about what I am doing. In that way I perforce start editing the material for fear my correspondent’s eyes will glaze over with boredom if I put in everything I have learned. Also, one’s style is bound to be more relaxed than it will be at the dread moment when on writes “page 1” on a manuscript for an editor.

Humans can discriminate a trillion smells – wait, what?

To me, the idea that you can smell a trillion smells is somehow baffling. What does that even mean? To talk it through to myself, I wrote a story about it on Medium which somehow partially metastasized into a history of the classification of smells:

In What the Nose Knows, Avery Gilbert describes the history of the people who have tried to force an order onto smells. It begins, somehow predictably, with the godfather of scientific systemization, Linnaeus. The man who had brought us the taxonomic classification for animals, with names such as Felis catus and Caenorhabditis elegans, attempted to do the same for odors. He decided there must be a discrete set of classes of odors, which include fragrant, spicy, musky, garlicky, goaty, foul, and nauseating. This was later refined by Hendrik Zwaardermaker who added the classesethereal and empyreumatic, as well as adding subclasses for each class. Next came Hans Henning, who decided that smells lie on an odor prism. Each vertex was a specific quality of odor — flowery, foul, fruity, spicy, burnt, and resinous — and the distance of a small from each vertex was the relative contribution of that quality to the odor. This gave odors a space and direction and possibly even dynamics from one point to another. But it also didn’t work.

I think the key to understanding the concept of ‘a trillion smells’ is that there are so many basis elements; there are only three primary colors but there are many, many primary odorants.

Go read the whole thing.

Books to read “in able to have a basic conversation”

Warning: No neuroscience or ecology or economics, just me posting something I want to save for personal interest. I try to keep this blog relatively on-topic, but hey, it’s the holidays.

I may be a scientist, but my personal interests tend to the philosophy-history-literature axis of things. The problem is, there is always so much to read! Right now I’m on a classic in Polish literature (something I only recently discovered exists).

Here is a list of books that Joseph Brodsky thinks you should read before you can have a basic conversation with him. As an example, here is a personalized reading list:

Simone WeilThe Need for Roots

Lev ShestovAthens and Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit [PERSONAL NOTE: I hated this book.]

George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies 

E.M. CioranThe Temptation to Exist

Søren KierkegaardEither/Or

Alternatively, here is a collection of syllabi from 10 famous authors. Possibly the best syllabi: