10 December 2011

Neuro-Reality-Check: Brief Replies to Some Contentious Claims (Part I)

Assertion 1: Historians can’t really talk about neuroscience because they are not neuroscientists.

It is tempting to reply to this specious claim that if historians can’t talk about neuroscience, then neuroscientists can’t talk about history, anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, or art. At the least, one would think that this rule can be stated reciprocally and maintained with the same righteous indignation as the assertion.

And let me tell you: the offensiveness of the neuroscientist’s position was felt as keenly as the offense we apparently gave by questioning neuroscience. Not only apparently can neuroscientists tell humanists and social scientists what they can do; but moreover they can also talk about the humanities and social sciences all they want. Meanwhile we are supposed to keep silent about neuroscientific claims to knowledge.

Let us reconstruct this thinking: Historians, so the logic of this argument would go, don’t possess any professional monopoly on history. After all, from the point of view of the neuroscientist, it is possible to be self-taught in knowledge of biography/autobiography/French theory etc, and this knowledge is supposedly of the same order as that found in a dusty archive or through paleography, textual analysis, oral history, and prosopography. Notice that the whole understanding of historiography is absent here. The neuroscientist’s view is that history is supposedly social in its belonging to everyone, and that, according to the neuroscientist, includes neuroscientists.

But note also that neuroscience belongs only to historians when it has been packaged in the way that neuroscientists approve, when they have given us their received history of the account; their perceived and apparently omniscient view into how various publics perceived their work; and through the internal terms of their own controversies. Not, in other words, in terms of the controversies their work engenders.

On the contrary, believe, we are told, that those controversies were never their intended target at all. In fact, they plead ignorance of them. Historians know about those external controversies, but they misread the neuroscientists’ intentions as speaking to them. Neuroscientists are supposedly autonomous, un-embedded people, who, save perhaps in some-sort of Paleolithic sense, where the context that matters is the brain nature gave them and us, are otherwise somehow magically free of the currency and immediacy of economic, cultural, and political debates. That’s absurd. But there is more that bothers me about this claim.

What I would like to know is actually what specifically would it mean to be a neuroscientist in the way that the neuroscientist who presented this challenge meant. What does she/he mean by this claim of “being a neuroscientist”. What distinction is she/he making, for example, among all of those in the neuroscience laboratories? I am thinking of the technicians, who do much of the work, the junior scientists in training, the engineers called into service the machines, the dishwashers, the animal-keepers, the janitors, the secretaries who oversee the spreadsheets, the software systems that keep the accounts, and “yes” even the ‘electrical systems’ that power those ongoing beasts of consumption.

Practicing this thing that supposedly no historian can have access to because they are not neuroscientists seems to presuppose that there is some ideal figure whose work embodies it all – as though the very raison d’être of the ‘work systems’ that make neuroscience could be assembled in such a way into an embodied subject. And even if they could be, that two such figures would ‘know each other’ as neuroscientists. So there are multiple levels at which this specious assertion operates. I think we can safely confine it to the dustbin.


  1. Um, ah, I was expecting some really cool neuroscience from a historical perspective

    but all i got was... gee, i didn't get it

    can you run that past me again?


  2. Thanks for the comment.This series is part of an insider's debate. The people who were involved in the conversation will get it. But I'm using "The Neuro Times" to unpack my own thinking about these questions. In other words, I use my blog as a way to unpack my own thinking on a question. I reserve the right to be unclear, specifically because I think sometimes things have be said unclearly first in order to clarify them later. If you want more concrete thinking, then please enjoy our publications, linked at the side. Cheers.