Showing posts from November, 2014

Top-down causation and the emergence of agency

There is a paradox at the heart of modern neuroscience. As we succeed in explaining more and more cognitive operations in terms of patterns of electrical activity of specific neural circuits, it seems we move ever farther from bridging the gap between the physical and the mental. Indeed, each advance seems to further relegate mental activity to the status of epiphenomenon – something that emerges from the physical activity of the brain but that plays no part in controlling it. It seems difficult to reconcile the reductionist, reverse-engineering approach to brain function with the idea that we human beings have thoughts, desires, goals and beliefs that influence our actions. If actions are driven by the physical flow of ions through networks of neurons, then is there any room or even any need for psychological explanations of behaviour?

How vs Why To me, that depends on what level of explanation is being sought. If you want to understand how an organism behaves, it is perfectly possibl…

Autism, epidemiology, and the public perception of evidence

“One day it's C-sections, the next it's pollution, now so many genes. Connect the dots, causation changes like the wind”

That quote is from a brief conversation I had on Twitter recently, with someone who is sceptical of the evidence that the causes of autism are overwhelmingly genetic (as described here). For me, it sums up a huge problem in how science is reported and perceived by the general public. This problem is especially stark when it comes to reportage of epidemiology studies, which seem to attract disproportionate levels of press interest.

The problem was highlighted by reports of a recent study that claims to show a statistical link between delivery by Caesarean section and risk of autism. This study was reported in several Irish newspapers, with alarming headlines like “C-sections ‘raise autism risk’” and in the UK Daily Mail, whose headline read (confusingly): “Autism '23% more likely in babies born by C-section': Women warned not to be alarmed by finding…