Uncovering the brain's biggest secret - Melanie E. Peffer
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This story illustrates how science really works in the real world. A common way of thinking about science is that it follows a recipe-like format, or the “scientific method” and that we use this method for generating new information about the world. In the real world, science is far more exciting and interesting – in fact, there are many different kinds of scientific methods depending on what a scientist is studying. What makes science knowledge special is not necessarily how it was generated, but if the method used produced quality evidence. Quality evidence can be used to support a scientific claim, and then we can use those claims to make decisions.
Cajal’s new stain and observations provided new evidence that reticular theory, or that the nervous system was a single entity, wasn’t correct. Rather, the new evidence suggested something different – that cells were not in physical contact with one another and communicated through indirect electrical signals. It is normal for scientists to tweak their ideas in light of new evidence. In fact, this is a very important part of science! It’s also a normal part of science that not everyone agrees on how to interpret the same evidence. How we interpret evidence can be biased. Cognitive biases are errors that our brain makes when interpreting new information. Sometimes this can be a result of something we already know, or prior belief bias. Golgi had been studying the nervous system for many years from the perspective of reticular theory because Cajal announced his discoveries. He was biased to view evidence through the lens of reticular theory rather than the neuron doctrine.
Real world science doesn’t work in a vacuum – rather what scientists decide to test, how they test it, and how that evidence is interpreted is dictated by many outside influences. What gets studied is usually determined by what kind of grant money is available. How something is tested is often a factor of the techniques a scientist learned while in school. Evidence interpretation is influenced by cognitive biases. Culture and religion can also influence the process of science – you can learn more about bias, scientific methods, and the progress of science in this article written by Melanie Peffer. Watch this TEDx Talk by Peffer to learn about the ways science pops up in our daily lives in unexpected ways.
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