Monday open question: what should you learn from other people’s research?

I am a firm believer in the importance of a university-level education, though not for learning any trade-skill level set of facts – there are much better places to learn those than at a University! University education should not be about what to think but how to think. When I was an undergraduate in Mathematics, it was less about memorizing the precise proofs then learning the idea behind how to prove things (especially within a given class).

I have just returned from visiting several labs at other Universities that are very geographically very away from my home lab. Each University, for historical or other reasons, has a set of questions that is predominant in a way that it is not at another University. Perhaps one is smaller and collaborative and so you have many people at least touching on similar questions, thinking it through in similar ways. Perhaps another has a strong tradition in several fields which they have tried to keep up.

When visiting these labs, what should I care about? The specific facts? Or the way they are thinking about their problems? Data is great, but what help is it in the absence of a framework to understand it? Should I be remembering the exact details of experiments, or how it fits in and modifies my framework to understand the brain?

(Note that this got me into trouble at least once with a vague thought about the balance of excitation/inhibition in cortex but realizing I don’t know any of the references I was basing it off of…)

Neil deGrasse Tyson hates on philosophy, and that’s a shame

A common sentiment among scientists is that they find nothing useful in philosophy. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of those:

It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: he has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise, and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing…

Neil’s comeback was: “That can really mess you up.” The host then added: “I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?” And here is the rest of the pertinent dialogue:

dGT: I agree.

interviewer: At a certain point it’s just futile.

dGT: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?

Tyson has a bit of a point: the reason that science was initially called Natural Philosophy was because that was where it grew out of. Before we had the intellectual tools (ie empricisim) to perform what we consider “science”, humanity used a lot of logical reasoning to learn about the world. Because it was the best we had! And sure, there are many places that we no longer use philosophy to learn about the world because we’ve got a lot of data. But there’s a lot of other things where we don’t have enough data! And we have to use our reasoning to figure things out. That’s called philosophy.

I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and though much of what I did was not ‘useful’ per se, it was pivotal in teaching me how to think. Personally, I would encourage any scientist to read more philosophy to improve the clarity of their thinking.