Neuropolis reclaims science for real people

I am interested, as this blogsite demonstrates, in sex and politics: in how we manage our dealings with each other – whether intimate or collective. Whereas objective facts about the laws of nature and how they play out in the material world hold far less attraction, sorry. Science is vital and the technology it produces is both essential and mindboggling (to me. Well it would be…). I give thanks daily that others with great minds and aptitudes pursue a scientific vocation, but…
Here I am reading a book about science! Because it relates science to people. It looks at how science looks at people and, oops, it finds outrageous fallibilities.

In Neuropolis, the book and the Radio 4 series, Robert Newman targets a sub-species of pop-neuroscience that he dubs bro-science – a pessimistic, denigrating take on the brain that is based more on macho posing than on research. He sets out to destroy it using proper science.

Really? Is Newman a scientist? No. He is a comedian. He defends his exercise by quoting Köhler, who praised “trespassing as a scientific technique”. Thus Newman, the outsider trespassing on science, is reclaiming science for real people like me.

I remember listening dutifully to V S Ramachandran’s brain science Reith Lectures in 2003, hearing him speak a variety of curiosities –including that our minds are made up a few seconds before we know it in a process hidden from our conscious decision-making– and thinking, where does this fellow get off? Here at last Newman provides the answer. Ramachandran is a bro-scientist, whose evidence is dubious, and he seems engaged in a contest to posit human life as less autonomous and less worthy than the next man. That man being maybe Yuval Noah Harari who claims that “the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by a set of biological algorithms.”

This “dehumanising and pessimistic agenda” (typified by Stephen Hawking’s remark that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet…”) gives rise to a variety of reductive fallacies Newman calls magical scientism. These fallacies include a view that in science “there is physics, and there is stamp collecting”. Newman sees this notion lurking at the back of physicist Stephen Hawking’s claim that philosophy has not kept up with science – for which no evidence is adduced. (This –you heard it here first– will be the subject of Newman’s next book.) It isn’t true! he says.

Uploading consciousness onto a computer –a prospect so beloved of chauvinistic futurists– is just as fallacious, says Newman. Based on a clockwork vision of the world, it models our behaviour on machines, and leads Professor Brian Cox to state that “there’s nothing special about human brains that a sufficiently complex computer couldn’t do just as well”.

Then there’s the modern mythologising of the brain by researchers looking for human responses in specific parts of the brain using the very dodgy fMRI (imaging the brain so bits light up in primary colours on a screen).

The book demolishes these fallacies, and here are a few takeaways: Science is a precious process that is physics yes, but also chemistry and biology. Above all, it is about empirical evidence.
We are not machines, we are animals who are first and foremost emotional beings – no machine has ever been that.
As a result, there is no totally disinterested science. Bro-values produce seriously dodgy, life-denying neuro-bollocks that eco-warriors such as Newman are motivated to dismantle. (The chapter on Pavlov and his citadel of silence is as chilling as it is revealing – highly recommended).

Proper scientists (and pseudo scientist) are sniffy about Newman, pointing out small errors, and dismissing him for his very unorthodox writing style. True, he elides comedy with fact; recounts true and invented anecdotes without distinction. Newman accepts this can be a barrier for some, and so he intends to make his next book less eccentric. But he says, “I like that switching as a reader – when a book switches from one point of view to another”.

Some people are hostile to Newman because they fear Newman’s flippant critique might be lending unwitting support to the nutters who reject science, assert God’s supremacy, and reject global warming while voting for Trump and his ilk. Newman won’t have it: “It’s hard to think of an idea more inimical to the spirit of free scientific enquiry than ‘you are either with us or against us’,” he told me when we met. After all, scientific critique is one way of describing the scientific method.

Would Newman have brought me to this and his earlier book The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution without the flippancy? Without the radio comedies? The silly, fictional touches are what led me to the life-enhancing, fun, and enlightening experience of reading his books. I overlook the stylistic eccentricities, (and the numerous typo’s – HarperCollins, I’m available for proofing!) because the message is important.

Perhaps machines will develop consciousness one day; perhaps it will be discovered that we are predestined creatures coded into being by a greater intelligence not living on a moderate sized planet; perhaps it will be found that the brain is mechanical wetware. Let science keep searching – please. And I will believe it when the evidence shows it. For now, the evidence is against it. It points to people being autonomous creatures capable of nobility, creativity and intelligence, which is quite exciting in itself.

If there is justice, Newman’s efforts will prove a major contribution to the defeat of the mechanistic, reductive strands in our public conversation about the mind, and rebuild a humane discourse that takes full cognisance of how vital human love, empathy, contrariness, and co-operation are to us and the biosphere’s survival.

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