Monday, February 11, 2013

Just the facts ma'am?

If you're old enough, or bright enough to watch good old shows, you know that was an expression made famous by Joe Friday of the series Dragnet. It is the theme for the following.

Some think that we cannot make any assumptions about consciousness because the data is not yet sufficient. Some go so far as to suggest that the current data does not support the notion whatsoever, that it’s zombies all the way down and up. Such opinions strike me as particularly pathetic and cowardly. First off, there will never be any data to support it if one doesn’t make an educated hypothesis based on previous evidence, which hypothesis can then be experimentally tested. The scientific method doesn’t just generate data out of nowhere; it comes from looking for very particular things by designing precise experimental conditions. Granted some data produced may exceed the experimental parameters, but then one must try to account for it by hypothesizing its meaning and designing further experimental tests. Recall this is what Koch described for science to move forward. Therefore we cannot just sit around and hope some stray data will one day prove consciousness; we have to form hypotheses and theories and then design experiments to prove or disprove it.

Another thing. Some suggest that those addressing consciousness are caught in confirmation bias because they cannot accept the cognitive dissonance of the ‘evidence’ that obviously disproves it, i.e., those experiments based on Libet’s work showing a time lapse between an unconscious neural decision to move and one’s awareness of the decision to move. There has been a huge debate as to the meaning of not only Libet’s results but those subsequent experiments based on that work. We might even say that based on those experimenter’s confirmation bias they designed further experiments to validate their theory with just the facts. But the fact that Schurger et al’s recent experiment found that the unconscious neural decision may in fact occur along with the awareness of the decision to move is not stopping them. They are ignoring their cognitive dissonance and engaging in their own confirmation bias.

As to Damasio’s work, particularly Self Comes To Mind, let’s recall the review done by Ginger Campbell of Brain Science Podcast from this post. On pp. 3-4 she admires him for his capacity to change his mind about a certain aspect of his work, which Damasio did early in the book. She comments about how scientists can have confirmation bias when faced with the cognitive dissonance of new data not supporting it. Recall this post on Travis’ work. So apparently Damasio has the necessary conscious tools to override the bias, and which Tavris too thinks are necessary for the job.

As to Damasio’s expert and extensive neuroscientific background that informs his admitted working hypothesis, Campbell said on p. 4: One of the things I really appreciate about this book is the way that Damasio bases his positions, both old and new, on the current scientific evidence.” He keeps up with all the experimental data and he addressed it in the book. And not just the data that supports his theories but those that question it. He is meticulous in his investigation of all the data. And from that he has not only the creativity but the courage to put out there new ideas based on all the data. And this is exactly the process to further investigate his thesis. Recall that Dehaene (in this post) didn’t include Damasio’s work in his study given that the weight of data to date was not yet sufficient to fit into their very specific paper. But he was also clear that his innovative hypothesis, as well as that of others, is critical to moving the project forward. And that project will of course never move forward if the naysayers and reductionists not only continue to sit on their hands but try to stop the research into the topic because it’s just an illusion and a waste of time. I say to hell with them and support the educated and informed scientific dreamers like Damasio, for without their ilk progress would never move forward. But perhaps that is the problem to those not only stuck in their own dissonance and bias but lack any creativity or even gumption?

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