Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Philosophical Transactions and Michelangelo

Yesterday, I was pleased to celebrate two birthdays: the birth of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (of which I was Editor in Chief between 1997 and 2003), and the birth of Michelangelo.

The birth of The Philosophical Transactions (established March 6, 1665) was celebrated at a party at the Royal Society (accompanied, strangely enough, by hot dogs and French fries!!). Phil Trans, as it is now commonly referred to in abbreviation, is the world’s first scientific journal, its longest running, the first to introduce the peer-review system and the first to publish a paper by a woman scientist (Caroline Herschel in 1787).

As the President of the Royal Society reminded those gathered to celebrate last night, before Phil Trans was established, scientists used to correspond with each other, often in code, for fear that their findings may be stolen. Phil Trans changed all that and hence made science more accessible, while at the same time giving a scientist priority for his/her findings.

It was established by Henry Oldenburg, German by birth and the first Secretary of the Royal Society, and has since published many interesting papers, including ones by Newton, Boyle and others. More recently, these have been in the form of reviews and the issues have often been theme issues, devoted to a particular topic.

Soon after its birth, London was hit by the Great Plague and then the Great Fire. Phil Trans was spared because, at that time, its offices had moved to Oxford.

But Oldenburg himself was incarcerated briefly at the Tower of London. He had been in correspondence with some Dutch scientists and, during the Anglo-Dutch wars, the security services suspected him of having Dutch sympathies and therefore of being a security risk.

In 1887, the journal divided into two sections, one devoted to the physical sciences (A) and the other to the biological sciences (B) and has continued in that form (I was Editor of the B section).

The birthday was also a moment of reflection about the future of scientific publication and the peer-review system. The latter is often abused but not nearly as much, I think, as people believe. But with so many scientists producing so much, can the peer-review system survive in its present form?

In a sense, the peer-review system is itself somewhat outdated now, or rapidly becoming so. Scientific findings, especially ones that are considered to be important, are subject to post-publication scrutiny. Just think of what happened to a certain well-known paper published in Nature last year. This perhaps will rapidly reduce the peer-review system to a sort of check-list, to ensure that it is broadly respectable, without too much quibbling about the interpretation of the results.

Plus of course, any scientist who is completely shut out can always publish results on the internet.

In fact,  post-publication review has been with us for as long as Phil Trans and even longer. Good papers stand the test of time because they are found to be good post-publication and bad or indifferent ones wither away and are forgotten, no matter how glowing the peer review may have been. 

No one invited me to a celebration of Michelangelo’s birthday (March 6, 1475) – assuming that any had been organized.

So I celebrated it with friends, all of them Michelangelo nuts, at a dinner.

Altogether a very nice day.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Box office success from questionable science

It was inevitable!

It had to happen!

Nature reports that a film, called The Whistleblower,  has been made, based on the Woo Suk Hwang scandal in South Korea, concerning the creation of embryonic stem cells by cloning. The film stars top actors. 

The disputed papers were published in a famous scientific journal, Science, and subsequently retracted

The film apparently paints a sympathetic portrait of Hwang as a man with human frailties, like the rest of us.

The real whistleblower would seem not to have been very pleased with this film because, according to the report, “his own contributions and those of online bloggers were credited to the reporter” (in the film).

The Nature report draws attention to the fact that Nature itself was the first to report that Hwang had procured the eggs for his experiments unethically.

Of course, there is another film in the (potential) making, this time about a paper published in  another famous scientific journal, and which had even more tragic consequences.  

I wonder when such a film will be made.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A non-binding resolution to the binding problem?

Contributed jointly by Dragan Rangelov and myself

The binding problem is a specific example of a more general problem in brain studies, namely that of integration, that is to say of how the many, specialized, areas of the brain interact to provide the integration that is evident in our perceptions, thoughts and actions.

Binding has come to refer more to this problem within the confines of the visual brain. Here the binding problem becomes the problem of how the several, parallel, processing systems in the brain interact to give us our unitary perception of the visual world, in which different attributes such as form, colour and motion are seen in precise spatial and temporal registration.

The initial mistake is to suppose that we do see these attributes at precisely the same time. In fact, psychophysicalexperiments show that this is not true and that we see and become aware of some visual attributes such as colour before we see and become aware of others, such as motion.

This raises a question which has so far remained un-addressed, namely of whether there is some central station in the brain that “waits” for all the processing systems to complete their tasks before “binding” the results of their operations. There clearly is no such system because, over very brief time windows, we bind the colour that we see at time x to the motion that we had perceived 80 ms before. We therefore mis-bind in terms of the objective reality.

We discussed this issue some two years ago while at a meeting and thought that we should conduct some more experiments on this problem. Our approach was as follows: we presented subjects with lines of different orientation that could be in a number of colours. If colour is bound to orientation at perceptual or pre-perceptual stages, then the accuracy of reporting one attribute, say colour, should co-vary with the accuracy of reporting the other attribute (orientation), when the two are presented to subjects over very brief time windows.

If, however, the two attributes are not bound at the pre-perceptual or perceptual stage, then the accuracy of reporting one attribute (colour) should vary independently from the accuracy of reporting the other (orientation).

Our results, just published, showed that the accuracy of reporting the two attributes is independent, with the accuracy of reporting colour being always greater than the accuracy of reporting the orientation, probably reflecting the fact that colour is perceived before the orientation of lines by about 40 ms.

This suggests that these two attributes, at least, are not bound at either pre-perceptual or perceptual stages.

This result leads us to conclude that binding does not occur by physiological interaction between cells in the visual areas, but rather occurs at pos-perceptual stages, perhaps through the intervention of memory. We only experience attributes as being bound even though they are not bound physiologically, and only because they occur within the same, very brief memory time window.

Our results may provide, we think, an interesting resolution to the  binding problem, namely that there is no such problem to resolve at the perceptual level.

If binding occurs post-perceptually, then the search for how binding occurs shifts to a different arena.

Time will tell whether we are correct in our interpretation. 

We may of course be wrong, but we hope that our new view provides the ground for interesting new experiments and debates.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

(Literally) blind experts

An American friend drew my attention recently to a paper published last year and entitled The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again: Sustained Inattentional Blindness in Expert Observers. It is the report of a study in which experts failed to detect an unexpected occurrence (gorilla) in their area of expertise even when viewing it directly.

This phenomenon, known for a long time and, to my knowledge, first described in a paper published in 1999 by Simons andChabris, is known as inattentional blindness. In the past, it has been demonstrated with naïve subjects in unfamiliar tasks. The authors of the above study asked: does inattentional blindness also occur frequently among experts?

A very interesting and highly relevant question!

To study this, they asked 24 radiologists (hence experts) to screen CT (Computed Tomography) scans of lungs for nodules. The radiologists ranged in age from 28 – 70 years; hence some must have had very considerable experience. Their eye movements were tracked as they viewed the scans. But embedded in the scans was a gorilla which was some 48 times the size of the average lung nodule that the radiologists were searching for; moreover, it was positioned close to a nodule.

20 of the 24 experts did not report seeing the gorilla and eye tracking revealed that, of the 20 radiologists who did not report seeing the gorilla, 12 had looked directly at where the gorilla was located.

The authors conclude that, “This is a clear illustration that radiologists, though they are expert searchers, are not immune to the effects of IB [inattentional blindness] even when searching medical images within their domain of expertise”. They add, “Presumably, they would have done much better at detecting the gorilla had they been told to be prepared for such a target…perhaps a smaller gorilla would have been more frequently detected because it would have been more closely matched the size of the lung modules” [sic].

A sobering thought!

I imagine that, on the whole, radiologists do end up detecting the nodules, even if they are apparently often not able to detect something that is blindingly obvious (if I may use the phrase in this context).

But just think of experts in other domains, say economics, and above all of expert politicians of all stripes and in all countries. Thinking about them, one cannot help but suppose that they, too, must suffer from inattentional blindness, but this time of a more cognitive variety.

In fact, I am increasingly inclined to believe that many of today’s problems are due to the inattentional blindness of politicians to the continual and rapid and huge changes occurring (and here the size of the gorilla compared to the lung nodules comes to mind). I am increasingly led to believe that politicians just do not have their ears to the ground and, in many instances, are – because of this inattentional blindness - way behind public opinion on a great many issues. Hence they are not up to date experts.

Perhaps this puts the inattentional blindness of radiologists to huge gorillas embedded in the scans they are examining in perspective. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tracey Emin's "My Bed, My Bed" sells for £2.5 million.

This may come as a surprise to those who know about my distaste for much that passes for  “contemporary art”. Many would include Tracey Emin’s My Bed My Bed in that category. But Emin’s creation is something that I actually rather like. It is far better than much in contemporary art. I do not think that it is beautiful and would not want to have it in my house.  But it is something that I would seriously consider having in my art gallery, if I had been fortunate enough to have one. It is certainly far better than the creations of a certain gentleman whose works fetch equivalent, if not much higher, prices.

Apparently created when she was in depression, and in the state in which it was when she had not got out of it for several days, lying on the floor next to the bed is a variety of objects – condoms, cigarettes, knickers and so on.

Why would such a creation be of the slightest interest? Why would anyone even want to consider it a work of art?

I argued in my book Inner Vision: an exploration of art and the brain, that one of the functions of art is to give and gain knowledge. And My Bed My Bed gives, I think, knowledge about thousands, and more likely millions, of beds in bed-sitting rooms in all major cities of the world. It replays a scenario that you will find time and time again if you were to peep into bedrooms or walk into them un-invited.

It gives you knowledge about how many, many millions live like every day and their states of mind.

My Bed My Bed is therefore giving knowledge not only about bedrooms but also about states of mind that keep bedrooms in that state.

All art is abstraction. A portrait painting is great if it succeeds in being an abstraction of a certain kind of character. The actual person portrayed becomes irrelevant, because the portrait gives knowledge about a character, not an individual person.

And so with Tracey Emin’s My Bed. It is far, far more interesting than bisected sharks and cows. These also give knowledge but that knowledge is much better obtained in museums of natural history which are, after all, open to all.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed gives knowledge about something that is normally hidden from view.

So, I am not at all surprised that My Bed My Bed should have been sold at auction this month in London for £2.5 million. It is much better than many other works of art that fetch equivalent prices. It is one of the much better examples of contemporary art.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Juncker and Cameron the best of friends

Looking at the picture published in The Guardian, no one would suspect that David Cameron tried to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker for Presidency of the European Union, and lost big time.

Instead, they appear as if they are, and have been, the best of friends.

It is as if it was all water off a duck’s back.

This is the stuff of successful diplomacy, on the back of hypocrisy.

I would have loved to determine the pattern of brain activity in both at this "oh-so-friendly" moment!

"Nature" and the retracted STAP cell paper


After its publication in January this year, to much fanfare and international acclaim, the two STAP cell papers have been retracted because, it seems, there were flaws in them.

In an editorial, Nature has absolved itself of all responsibility for the flawed papers, claiming that neither its referees nor its editorial team could have spotted the apparently serious flaws in the them, flaws which led to the papers’ rapid demise.

Nature is in fact quite correct. It is not the function of editors or journals to look for manipulated images or plagiarism. I have no doubt that the very great majority of referees would notify the editors at once if they detect such flaws. There is, or ought to be, a certain element of trust between authors, journals and their editors. Moreover, as I understand it, Nature and its referees did not give these papers an easy ride. It took several months before the papers were published, implying that the referees had asked for substantial modifications to the manuscript.

Thus, Nature could be said to come out of it smelling like roses.

Yes, but not quite so fast.

Nature should take a leaf from one of its sister publication, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which is in fact owned by the Nature Publishing Group.

After a paper is accepted in Frontiers (but not before, and not if it is rejected), the names of the referees are published on the front page of the article. Publication in Frontiers is also not an easy ride, but at least the authors are allowed to enter into dialogue with the referees to put right or respond to criticisms, something that few journals allow, to the disadvantage of authors. The referees remain anonymous throughout this process, and only if a paper is accepted for publication are their names published.

Hence, if a paper is of extraordinary significance, some of the glory is reflected onto the referees and of course onto the journal. I mean, just imagine, if the Crick-Watson DNA paper had the names of the referees on it, they would no doubt have wanted to share in the glory to some minor extent. Indeed, Nature itself periodically reminds its readers that the DNA article was published in their pages, thus basking in the reflected glory.

Since all reasonable people understand that referees and editors cannot be held accountable for things like manipulated images or plagiarism in a paper, publication of their names in an accepted paper would do no harm, if the published paper turns out to have serious flaws.

If, on the other hand, the paper turns out to be some extraordinary contribution, then they can at least feel pride in helping to bring it to fruition and bask in its glory.

It is a classic case of “heads I win, tails you lose”

Why not try it?