Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Unconventional Ideas and the establishment

There have been further comments on Robin Ince's post "The Fascism of Knowing Stuff" including some relating to the idea  of interesting unconventional ideas being suppressed as a result of peer reviews and Nullifidian wondered whether there were any real "anonymous" scientists who had problems - so with the following comment I stood up to be counted:
One must not forget that there are well documented cases where opposition from the establishment has delayed or hindered the development of ideas we now consider important.
One cannot deny the Galileo had problems with peer reviews.
Darwin might have published earlier if he had not been worried about the criticism his research would receive from the establishment – and his key work might never have seen the light of day if it was not for the support of friends and the fact that Wallace had independently come up with the same idea.
Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was never accepted in his lifetime – because the geologist establishment (who didn't have any better theories) could not accept that the ideas of a non-geologist might be right.
Nullifidian commented on the “anonymous scientists” who had difficulty with peer-reviews, and I am quite happy to stand up to say that I have experienced the problems of doing research which questions the establishment position and know how the system works (unintentionally I am sure) to crush “incompatible” ideas.
In 1967 I was working on the future plans within a small computer manufacturer, and gave my boss a note suggesting that it should be possible to build computer systems that were fundamentally human friendly and which could handle a wide class of dynamically open-ended information processing problems by working symbiotically with the human user. While I didn't realise it at the time, what I was doing was proposing an alternative mathematical model of information processing to the universally accepted store program computer model. My vague idea was assessed by the two of the leading computer pioneers and I was rushed into research – until the company research division was closed down as the result of a merger. I then tried to carry on the research and it was clear that peer reviews and funding were a recurring problem which are best explained by an analogy.
Let us assume that in 1850 I came up with the idea of a helicopter and needed funding – and the only experts in mechanical transport were at the railway station. So I get straight rejection such as “You must be mad – you couldn't possibly go from London to Bristol by helicopter because the rotor blades are too long and would snap off when you passed through the Box tunnel.” But some people said they might support me if the finances were right asking me questions such as “I have a thousand troops at London Euston Railway Station and I want to take them to Manchester Piccadilly – how much cheaper would it be to send them by helicopter?” I found a complete absence of relevant rejection points such as “You have not convinced me that you could build an engine which is light enough and powerful enough to get your helicopter off the ground.”
There can be nothing more depressing than repeatedly having your work rejected because of confirmation bias in the minds or the peer reviewers – who are unwilling to “waste time” questioning the foundations of their own views – and simple “reject”. After many years trying I decided to stop banging my head against a brick wall. The project was closed down in 1988 and two years later a paper that had been submitted before the decision to close appeared in a top peer review journal!
Nearly 25 years later the question arose as to the future of a large pile of research reports, correspondence, computer listings, etc, related to the research, and I decided to look online before I decided whether to skip them or not. I quickly found that no-one else had gone in my direction - but suspect that many people my have tried and been crushed by the establishment at an early stage. However I discovered that the model I developed could provide a clue to modern brain research – where, despite enormous efforts in many different specialist field, there is no theory which provides a viable evolutionary pathway between the activity of individual neurons and human intelligence.
I believed the model I developed could (with some more work) help bridge that gap and have already posted many of the old reportson a blog. There are also some brainstorming ideas and the blog is beginning to attract attention. A short time ago the penny dropped as to the best way to represent the model. As a result a post defining an “ideal brain” (compare with an “ideal gas” in physics) is being drafted and will show how such a brain could evolve to support something like natural language and human intelligence.
Of course, as a committed scientist, I know that I could be wrong, and if people tear my “ideal gas” model to bits for good reasons I will always be happy to learn. However my experiences to date means that I am sure I will be ignored by people who KNOW without reading my blog that a 75 year old age pensioner whose only resource is access to the internet and some old reports MUST be wrong. Strange as it may seem I am almost more worried that the ideas attract enough attention to be newsworthy as that would disrupt my retirement – but as a scientist I feel I must find some way to expose my ideas to genuine critical review.
Nullifidian replied - and the immediately relevant part of his reply reads:
Finally, I didn’t use the phrase “anonymous scientists” to invite people who thought that peer review had done them wrong to submit their tales of woe. Frankly, I don’t care. The point I was making there was to say that there are plenty of ways to get information out to the scientific world, and publication is actually the least efficient of these and arguably mostly irrelevant. Conferences, preprints, presentations before other university departments, etc. are where the scientific action is. However, all these means of getting around the peer review process require that your work actually be as interesting to your colleagues as you think it is.

In your own case, you haven’t demonstrated that the peer review system has suppressed a scientifically worthy idea. You cite the absence of people “go[ing] in [your] direction” as evidence that these views have been “crushed by the establishment at an early stage”, but an equally potent hypothesis is that your ideas are unworkable and nobody wants to spend their time trying to make the unworkable work. While I can’t say without seeing your ideas in full, the notion that you can just switch from computation to talking about the brain without any apparent background in neuroscience is another indication that you’re a crank. So is the use of coined terms and irrelevant jargon. In what way is a brain similar to an “ideal gas”? An ideal gas is hypothetical state in which the molecules all randomly moving small, hard spheres that have perfectly elastic and frictionless collisions with no attractive or repulsive forces between them and where the intermolecular spaces are much larger than the molecules themselves. None of these things are true in practice, of course, but they’re close enough to the model in most cases that it makes no difference. Now, neurons are not small hard balls, they don’t move in random directions and collide elastically, the synapses are not vastly larger than the neurons, and there’s no way the concept of an ideal gas appears to work even as a metaphor. So I’m not convinced that the rejection of your ideas by an unfriendly peer review system is evidence that the “establishment” is wrong.
And I have replied:
First let me thank you for your critical comments – as the enemy of good science is confirmation bias – and what is needed to explore controvercial ideas is open no-holds barred debate on the issues. I have now posted a discussion draft “From the Neuron to Human Intelligence: Part 1: The ‘Ideal Brain’ Model” and have added a section on nomenclature specifically because you raised the subject.

Now responding to your specific comments let me start by reminding you that I said “despite enormous efforts in many different specialist field, there is no theory which provides a viable evolutionary pathway between the activity of individual neurons and human intelligence.”

If you think this statement is wrong I would be very grateful for a reference to a paper which describes such a model. If you can’t provide evidence of such research why are you so hostile to the suggestion that someone thinks that they might have a possible answer?

For instance you introduce a straw man argument relating to the analogy between my “ideal brain” model and an “ideal gas.” Of course I would be a crank if I thought neurons were little balls bouncing around in the brain – as you are suggesting. The whole point of the “ideal gas” model is to strip everything down to the bare essentials. You start with an infinite brain filled with identical neurons (cf. An infinite container filled with identical molecules). Interactions between neurons are not by collisions but by electrical connections which carry signals of variable strength. (In theory every neuron is connected to every other one – but in the vast majority of cases the strength of the interaction is zero.) In an ideal gas the three properties of interest at pressure, volume and temperature, while in the ideal brain we are interested at the ability to store patterns, recognise them, and use them to make decisions. Another similarity is that both models work pretty well in some cases – for instance the ideal brain model suggests one reason why humans are prone to confirmation bias – and when the models start to fail the models can be used to explain the differences.

Your comment about switching between computation and talking abut the brain is interesting for two reasons.

Any research model which attempts to link the neurons to human intelligence will involve many different disciplines in fields such as psychology, childhood learning, animal behaviour, linguistics, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience, and in addition will undoubtedly involve modelling on a computer. I would argue that what is needed is the ability to stand back and be able to see the wood from the trees – and that have too much mental commitment in any one speciality could be a liability. You seem to be suggesting that neuroscientists are some kind of super-scientists who have a monopoly on holistic approaches to how the brain works.

However the comment is interesting because it pin-points the problem I have had. My ideas became trapped between a rock and a hard place. I worked as an information scientist (in the librarian sense) before entering the computer field and was used to seeing how people handled complex information processing tasks. I then moved to computers and concluded that there were serious flaws in the design of stored program computers – suggesting a fundamentally different model that reflected how people handled information. I could not get adequate support from the computer establishment because computers were so successful that there couldn’t be any serious flaw in their design, and even if there were problems there was so much money to be made ploughing on regardless that any time spent on blue-sky-research into work that questioned the ideas of people like Turing was a waste of time.

At the same time I was getting comments from other fields that that I could not be modelling how people think because the standard computer model was wrong and as I was a computer scientist I must also be wrong! I am sure your critical comment was based on a stereotyped view that tars all computer scientists with the same brush.

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