On conceptual rigor: “What do we take ourselves to be doing?”

I had the pleasure recently of attending a Festschrift celebration for Prof. Dorothy Bishop , who has been a leading light in the study of neurodevelopmental disorders (especially speech and language disorders) for decades. She has also been a vocal and effective proponent of improving reproducibility in scientific research, writing on her popular blog , on twitter , in journal articles , and even presenting in the houses of parliament on the subject.     Dorothy’s efforts, along with many others in the Open Science “movement”, have helped to highlight crucial issues of methodological and statistical rigor that have led to irreproducibility across many fields, along with potential solutions and ways that the scientific community collectively can address these problems. These efforts are aimed at improving the quality of what we are doing. But there is sometimes a deeper question to be asked: why are we doing what we are doing? What is the conceptual basis for the research we’re c

The evolution of meaning – from pragmatic couplings to semantic representations.

When living creatures perceive something, they’re concerned with two questions: What is it? and: What should I do about it ? You might think that the machinery for answering those questions evolved in that order – like you’d have to know what something is before you can know what to do about it – but it seems likely to have been the opposite. The actions of the simplest creatures when faced with various stimuli in the world are mostly coordinated by pragmatic couplings – signals that are prescriptive rather than descriptive . But these mechanisms laid the foundation for the evolution of decoupled internal representations with true semantic content.   For living organisms to go on persisting – which, let’s face it, is their whole schtick – they have to take in energy and raw materials (food, oxygen) and use them to keep their internal economy humming. Many organisms manage this process – known as homeostasis – by staying put and letting resources come to them. The problem with this

The riddle of emergence – where do novel things come from?

It’s not true, that there’s nothing new under the sun. The universe is producing novelty all the time. Galaxies, stars, and planets, where none existed before. New elements, new molecules – life itself, with the explosion of new species, and eventually new minds, capable of new thoughts. New types of things at new levels of existence – discrete entities composed of smaller entities, arranged in specific ways. New systems with new properties and new causal powers, governed by new principles. So where does all this novelty come from?   The term emergence is often used to refer to the appearance of qualitatively novel states or processes or properties that arise when things are combined in certain ways. But as with many metaphysical terms, it means different things to different people and in different contexts, and it’s not always clear what, if anything, follows from its use. In particular, it is often not stated whether “emergence” simply refers to an observed phenomenon in need o

Go big or stay home! Small neuroimaging association studies just generate noise.

Figuring out the neural basis of differences between individuals or groups in all kinds of psychological traits or psychiatric conditions is a major goal of modern neuroscience. In humans, investigating this has necessarily relied on non-invasive tools like functional or structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Many thousands of studies have been published following a similar design: measure some functional or structural neuroimaging parameters across the whole brain and compare them across individuals or groups to look for ones that are statistically associated with variation in some psychological trait, performance on a cognitive task, or membership of one or other group. Most of these studies have sample sizes in the tens or at best the low hundreds. A new study by Scott Marek and colleagues shows convincingly that those sample sizes are at least one or two orders of magnitude too low to produce reliable results.   This shouldn’t really be news to anyone who’s been paying a

What have we learned from psychiatric genetics? The view from 2022.

It has been recognised for millennia that risk of mental illness (broadly defined) tends to run in families. Modern science has confirmed that psychiatric disorders of all kinds are highly heritable – that is, the majority of the variation we see across the population in who is at risk of developing these conditions is genetic in origin. However, these conditions are not inherited in a simple “Mendelian” fashion, with clearly segregating risk, like cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. Instead, their inheritance is “complex”, which means that many genetic variants are at play, along with non-genetic factors. In addition, despite clear familial risks in general, many individual cases are “sporadic”, with no affected relatives. The last decade has seen tremendous efforts by many hundreds of scientists across the globe aimed at identifying the genetic risk factors and better understanding the etiology of psychiatric conditions.   The hope is that elucidating the genetics of these con