I pick on optogenetics, but…

Methodological crazes are all like this. Think back on your favorite that is no longer. Or is still a thing, but not the thing, and now we now the know caveats and why a lot of the early work was bullshit: before the astronomical false positive rates were known, or the caveats and artefacts that must be dealt with but were ignored in our youthful zeal to publish it in Nature. The early days of almost any method are rife with the cowboys: sloppy experiments, over-interpreted. Cowboy is too romantic. Low hanging fruit harvesters.

I won’t pick on particular methods, but the pattern is pretty clear, historically. New methods are often so uncritically acclaimed that it causes major distortions in science. Whether or not they end up causing seismic shifts in our knowledge or practice of science (most don’t), they make or break careers and incontrovertibly cause seismic shifts in funding and publishing.

And guess what? There were people back then, saying exactly what I (and many others) have said about optogenetics. And they were ignored, and you could argue what harm was done? We learned how to use (or not use) and interpret these methods appropriately. So what if the naysayers are almost always right, technically. We still make progress. And by naysayers, I mean people who simply say “let’s not put all our eggs in here” or “this is promising, but let’s be sure we continue to fund a variety of approaches” or “what is this even for and why are we spending tens of millions on it.” Because no scientist is actually opposed to new methods.

I say that the problem is that in the early days of new methods, we massively reward over-promising, sloppy thinking, and over-interpreted experiments. Massively. And this is terrible. Re-allocating funds to chase the new, hot thing basically means creating and incentive structure that rewards Type I errors (and/or being a blowhard) at the expense of quality and diversity of ideas and methods.

And this is where I haz the wow sad realization about (maybe) how this keeps happening: for your career, Type I errors aren’t errors at all, and Type II errors (or even reasonable caution) can kill you.

In going all brainless and ga-ga and “let’s fund the fuck out of it” over any and all uses of a new technology that looks like it’s all-that-and-a-side-of-chips, we extend massive credit to the low-hanging-fruit harvesters, and by the time the sobering bill arrives and we’ve separated the bit of wheat from the mountains of chaff, all their postdocs have tenure doing the same thing.

And look at neuroscience today. Look at the “You Are Your Connectome”* fan club of consciousness uploaders and deepity commentariat. Look at how optogenetics is going to either cure everything or enslave us to the government.

Look—if you dare—at the Human Brain Project, which is kind of the F35 jet + tulip mania wrapped up in some kind of Willy Wonka fever nightmare.

Neuroscience is in an era of Strong Bullshit. And I get how that’s an opportunity for the field despite it being annoying. But it is my sincere hope that things like the BRAIN Initiative can at the very least find a responsible way to use the hype without being defined by the hype.

That was a tiring day of blogging.


4 Comments on “I pick on optogenetics, but…”

  1. Drug Monkey says:

    Are you saying affymetrics arrays didn’t solve kid cancer as promised?

  2. rxnm says:

    At least we have complete, accurate protein interactomes thanks to high throughput yeast 2 hybrid screens.

  3. […] on research fields involved” if the grant is funded. A lot of things play into this – what’s hot in your field right now, and therefore likely to get reviewers excited – is a big one. Implicit and explicit biases […]

  4. DJMH says:

    Amen. And the flip side of this is that older techniques get scorned even when their data is more reliable (because we’ve already done the troubleshooting on those techniques and know their pitfalls), simply because they aren’t the new thing. Singing as a patch physiologist.

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