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October 18, 2009

We Are Neuroscientists and We Come in Peace

by Greg Miller

Before this afternoon's social issues roundtable, I blithely assumed that neuroscience is mostly a good thing for society. It's all about understanding emotions, memory and cognition--the things that make us who we are--and tackling scourges such as Alzheimer's disease and depression. So I was thrown a bit off-guard by the opening remarks of the session moderator, Alan Leshner. "I think when the rest of society finds out what the broader implications of neuroscience research are, they're not going to like it," Leshner said.

(Full disclosure: Leshner is the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science, but I wasn't coerced, bribed, or even asked to show up at the roundtable or write about it.)

The other speakers picked up this troubling thread and highlighted aspects of neuroscience research that have the potential to elicit unease in the general population. Philosopher Patricia Churchland of the University of California, San Diego, spoke about the implications of research on the neural mechanisms of decision-making (which tend to sound pretty deterministic) for the widely held view that people must be held responsible for their actions. Cognitive neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge, U.K., cited recent evidence that the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs such as modafinil is increasing among teenagers, raising questions about long-term effects on the still-developing adolescent brain, among other ethical worries. And philosopher Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania flew through a history of military uses and abuses of psychology and neuroscience research, ranging from 1950s work on using LSD to pry secrets from enemy spies to current interest in using the "trust hormone" oxytocin to loosen lips.

Just when it seemed things could get no worse, Hank Greely of Stanford Law School pointed to several areas of potential friction between neuroscience research and widely held religious beliefs (findings that point to consciousness, or a form of it, in nonhuman animals, for example, might undermine the notion that humans occupy a unique position in the world) and asked whether neuroscientists might get dragged into the type of culture war waged by evolutionary biologists and creationists.

Greely went on to say that although he thinks that's possible, neuroscience is probably less likely to become a flash point in the culture wars than evolutionary science has been. To avoid that possibility, he said, neuroscientists should basically just be polite. "Don't offend people and inflame public passions," he said. "Don't overclaim and say you've proven there's no soul." (That sounds like good advice on several levels.)

But Churchland wasn't prepared to put courteousness above all else in the name of social harmony. Citing the public debates over abortion and right-to-die issues, she said that she's all for being polite until other people try to impose their own beliefs on her life: "Sometimes when my welfare is at stake I'm not as polite as I could be."

1 Comments

I don't think many fundamentalist creationists actually care about de novo information, panda thumbs, or any of the usual flashpoints: their gut response comes from evolutionary biology's challenge to dogma and to their categorised, fixed, unchanging view of the world. Any science that threatens this comfort will arouse the same response: it's not a question of phrasing (unless you say nothing in public, of course). Progress inflames religious passion by its very nature - and so it should!