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24.2.11

Scientific acupunture

Have you ever pointed at something with a pin? I mean, really? Because if not, you're probably not a scientist.

You see, as a scientist, I do a lot of pointing at things: I point at screens with laser pointers, at whiteboards with my finger, or even at other scientists when I'm laughing at their terrible hypotheses.

But that pales in comparison to how often I point with pins. So. Many. Pins. And as a neuroscientist, most of my pinpointing is at the brain:

Bradley Voytek,Brain,zombie,felting,etsy,ThePinkPirate,Surpreyes

Usually, we're pinpointing where in the brain things like love and snuggles are located. But sometimes we're more sophisticated. From the media, I have learned amazing things, such as the fact that:
  • "...[S]cientists have pinpointed the part of the human brain that holds information momentarily about where things are located." Or that,
  • "Scientists have pinpointed a source of nicotine craving in the brain, opening up a new path towards drug treatments to help smokers kick their habit."
You see, according to the media, it would appear that the primary role of science is to pinpoint when or where things happened. Forget about hypothesis generation and testing, complex argumentation and subtle logic, or elegant mathematics. Just point to where something is happening. Preferably with a pin.

Sometimes we pinpoint when in evolution things happened:

Sometimes we pinpoint naughty genes:
  • "Scientists have pinpointed a key cancer-causing gene that, when overactive, triggers a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer to develop."

Sometimes we pinpoint mutations:

Sometimes we pinpoint hormones:

But sometimes, it's not scientists who do the pinpointing. The media likes to shake it up and go crazy and shit. Sometimes they let researchers pinpoint things, too. (More naughty genes):
  • "A... researcher has pinpointed the mechanism by which a gene associated with both autism and schizophrenia influences behavior in mice."

Or let "experts" pinpoint brainy regions about abstract concepts:
  • "Experts have pinpointed the part of the brain that guides people when they are battling with difficult moral dilemmas, according to a study."

This serves as a reminder to science journalists: if you're going to write about a scientific finding, please don't forget to tell us, your readers, where that damned clichéd pin is pointing. Otherwise how the hell else are we supposed to understand science?

As a final note: those must be some pretty damn big pins. Because I guarantee, with stats like p = 0.05, those pinpoints are more like giant, fuzzy pinblobs. But then again, "scientists find suggestive evidence based upon possibly faulty statistical assumptions for..." doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Bradley Voytek pin the tail on the donkey


Science is hard, let's go shopping.



ResearchBlogging.orgCohen, J. (1994). The earth is round (p less than 0.05) American Psychologist, 49 (12), 997-1003 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.49.12.997Courtney SM, Petit L, Maisog JM, Ungerleider LG, & Haxby JV (1998). An area specialized for spatial working memory in human frontal cortex. Science, 279 (5355), 1347-51 PMID: 9478894Fowler CD, Lu Q, Johnson PM, Marks MJ, & Kenny PJ (2011). Habenular α5 nicotinic receptor subunit signalling controls nicotine intake. Nature PMID: 21278726