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Andrew Lucker
Andrew Lucker

Posted on • Originally published at on

Do neural cliques have “dimensions”?

The editorial staff at Frontiers may think so.

The Blue Brain team, headed by Henry Markram, noted the appearance of groups of closely connected neurons in their digital models and simulations of rats and C. elegans worms. Somewhere down the wire this story turned into headlines like “The Human Brain Can Create Structures in Up to 11 Dimensions”. If there is anything to gain from this title, then the Blue Brain team must have found a wormhole or something, right?

No, this is why grammar matters. Take for example an original statement “A twelve neuron network can model objects in eleven dimensional space”. Then compare it to the new statement “A twelve neuron network occupies eleven dimensional space”. These titles now share nothing other than the subject. The meaning is completely different.

As I have indicated over and over again, language drift matters. So much so that sloppy journalism is causing a cultural rift in our society, between those that consume original documents and those who consume derivatives. Let’s call this trickle down journalism.

Yes I understand that the economics of journalism have changed. Yes I know that academic publishing is exclusive. However, that is why I ideologically support samizdat projects like Sci-Hub. In a world where graduate level science is shoveled down our throats to justify political agendas there is no room for excuses. Publicly funded research should be available to the public, for free. Instead we have a system where putz commoners pay once, twice, and three times more for writing they will never be permitted to see.

Now back to the eleventh dimension. How could we have managed this story better? First, ignore reporters unless they link to the original (openly accessible) document at the top of the page. Second, science is not boring if you explain it well, actively support and share good technical writing. Third, ignore as much BS as possible, so train your literary nose.

Scientific publishing is an art form. However, the rigorous style and prose that was expected of a peer-reviewed submission is deteriorating. Now fewer people are inclined to use the indirect “we” pronoun in favor of crediting an influential coauthor. Titles are now written with click-baity consideration for skimmers on arXiv or similar repositories.

Changing language to fit usage is natural, but some homage should be left to old standards. If you find yourself in the position of writing or reviewing peer-reviewed or otherwise technical writing, look for conversational tone, as this seems more and more appropriate to the current environment. This change of tone alone could help make science more approachable, assuming access is granted to the public.

I believe that open-access will eventually become the standard. However, for now we still have to deal with pseudo-science in the public sphere. When science is locked away, we end up with scientific illiteracy as the consequence. Is it not more valuable to share than to hoard?

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