Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 1: brain reading

The first day of the Winter School was composed of two long sessions. The morning session focused on brain reading: its current state of development, potential applications and ethical issues. As per today, brain monitoring techniques are quite far from “reading thoughts” just like a sound recorder would record a conversation, so our discussions on how ethical it is to potentially read thoughts without a person’s consent (and its implications for privacy) were very speculative.

(Picture source: dailymail.co.uk, 31 May 2013. The winter school participants agreed that putting a brain scan in an article makes it intuitively more reliable, so here is one!)

My impression is that it is not that insightful to know what are the words and sentences that are generated by the brain at a certain moment, also because it is currently more effective to ask the person to tell them aloud. But what about lying? We had a complex discussion about how a brain reading device could detect lying. It could clearly be helpful in detecting if someone is saying yes while thinking no to a certain question; but how about cases of sincere wrong beliefs about given facts, or unconscious filtering of memory, or ill-formed questions? My thought is that it is more insightful to read the brain to know about the current mental state, than going for the high-level information conveyed by words. On that line, some studies tested the hypothesis that a certain set of emotions (and therefore specific mental activations) are triggered by recognising a scene in a picture and could tell for example if that person recognised the crime scene. My first objection is that the brain activation could come from recognising the scene for an unrelated reason, and would therefore be no solid proof.

I find that the application of brain reading in assisting justice would be risky if it were trusted to provide reliable data. The same applies for DNA analysis: if the overall reasoning is unsound, it could even be evidence against someone innocent. My take is that it is just like a new tool in the kitchen: it doesn’t automatically make you a better cook, but in the right hands it can make your job faster or more accurate.

 

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Cooking… and the universe

Wednesday has become the regular appointment with my “From the kitchen” posts. Today I have no recipe to share, or better, no good pictures of the recipes I wish to share (we were too fast eating them!).

I thought of what I could post about gastronomy… and remembered a quote of a Greek film where the uncle of the main character tells him that the word “gastronomy” includes the word “astronomy”… he showed him a connection between cooking and stars… I found it so inspiring that after 20 years I still remember it.

So here is my astronomy post, with my recent sources of information about the immense, black, mysterious universe around us.

First, ESA’s Picture of the Week that features breathtaking images such this one of NGC 278 in the constellation of Cassiopeia:

Then I present you the project GalaxyZoo, an online citizen science project, that offers everyone a simple tool to help classifying the immense number of galaxies detected by the world’s most powerful telescopes. Citizen science is a way of including non-specialists into actual science projects. I dislike how science is commonly left to specialists, when anyone with just a little patience, curiosity and love for precision can produce high-quality data for further analysis. This has been demonstrated by the many phases of GalaxyZoo, which allowed many scientists to publish papers based on these galaxy classification datasets; and by bird-watchers in many countries, who accurately recorded presence data on extensive areas, an effort that scientists could not imagine to attempt through regular sampling expeditions. It remembers me strongly of the collective mapping of OpenStreetMap. Of course a single contributor makes mistakes, but the strength of this model is in the many eyes that cross-check contributions and improve the dataset every day. And as a former (or dormant?) scientist myself, I know that specialists are not immune to errors either – and that’s why they resort to peer review and collaboration. See the timeline of ceratopsian research – even only the pictures – to see how many attempts were made, how many times some data have been reinterpreted, how many hypoteses have been remodeled and thrashed to come to our present understanding of these dinosaurs. But I am stuffing too many topics in this post! I will expand them in future posts.

Until then, I wish you all a relaxing and cheerful festive season, wherever you are all around the world!

 

 

Book review: “Souvenirs entomologiques” by Jean-Henri Fabre

Around a year ago, I stumbled upon the 10 volumes of the Souvenirs entomologiques while browsing ebooksgratuits.com. I feel ashamed not to have known about him in a more direct way, both as a naturalist and as a francophone, because there is so much passion in his scientific work and so much taste in his sublime prose.

Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) was a teacher in Southern France and an avid explorer of the nature around him. Along his books you discover his simple and fresh attitude to life, his admiration for insects, which he describes as complex and brave living beings, treating them with care and respect even when he interacts with them to test a scientific hypotesis.

I would recommend to read the original text, or hope that the translators created an equivalently rich and expressive prose. There is true poetry in the way he describes how the whole family, dog included, participate to his curious experiments that fill his room and the house’s garden with jars and cages for any kind of insect and spider; sometimes his children, who eagerly help him, are the ones who spot a crucial detail and are regarded by Fabre as true scientists too. He has a simple yet rich way of talking about his life, his ability to find positive aspects of a grim situation, his admiration for his human and animal teachers.

There has been some debate about his opposition to evolution theory, that is quite clear in this series of books, but this has not diminished the value of his work in my eyes: the theory was only being drafted at his times, therefore I am not surprised by Fabre’s point of view. He also sometimes associate moral virtues to insects and creation. I don’t agree with that, but it is a layer of his interpretation that I can easily peel off.

You can find all his texts in a neat classification on the website dedicated to his life and works [in Italian, French and English]. Happy reading!

Picture credits and sources: