Unsupervised Thinking
a podcast about neuroscience, artificial intelligence and science more broadly

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Episode 44: Can a Biologist Fix a Radio?

In 2002, cancer biologist Yuri Lazebnik raised and addressed the semi-facetious question "Can a biologist fix a radio?" in a short paper. The paper is a critique of current practices in the biological sciences, claiming they are inefficient at getting to truth. We discuss the stages of research progress in biological science Yuri describes, including the "paradoxical" stage where more facts leads to less understanding. We then dive into his view of how a biologist would approach a radio: describing what its parts look like, lesioning some of them, and making claims about what's necessary for the radio to work as a result. We reflect on how this framing of common biological research practices impacts our view of them and highlights how hard it is to understand complex systems. We talk about the (in)adequacy of Yuri's proposed solution to the problem (that biologists need to embrace formal, quantitative language) and the difference between engineering and science. Finally, we discuss a new take on this paper that goes through the effort of actually applying neuroscience methods to a microprocessor and the conclusions we took from that. Throughout we bring in specific examples from neuroscience we find relevant and Josh dismisses almost everything as "satirical".   

We read:
Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? - Or What I Learned Studying Apoptosis
Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor?

And mentioned some topics covered in previous episodes:
Does Neuroscience Need More Behavior?
How Do We Study Behavior? 
Underdeterminacy and Neural Circuits

To listen to (or download) this episode, (right) click here or use the player below

As always, our jazzy theme music "Quirky Dog" is courtesy of Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

1 comment:

  1. I blogged about this episode in the context of a discussion in linguistics whether science such as biology is a good model for the study of language (http://metaphorhacker.net/2019/04/what-would-make-linguistics-a-better-science-science-as-a-metaphor). It was interesting to see that even biology is having the same kind of discussion as linguistics - even if from the social science perspective things look much more clear cut.