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The power of ideas on a day of violence

This morning when I got to work I was reviewing my twitter feed when I came across a tweet linking to a rebuke to an open letter by Larry Swanson, the president of the Society for Neuroscience. You can find a link to the letter and the response here (http://blog.justinkiggins.com/2013/04/15/an-open-letter-to-larry-swanson-why-it-is-important-for-neuroscientists-to-debate-the-brain-initiative-in-public/).

I have been critical of the BRAIN initiative, but I’m not dead set against it. I want to be part of the community that shapes how we move science forward, but I don’t need everything to go my way. That is, if my concerns are heard, but ultimately the community decides that its scarce resources should be spent on the BRAIN initiative, I’ll be disappointed, but not angry. The key is having a voice. And social media has been incredibly powerful in enabling that voice. I started using Twitter just a few months ago, but have already had fantastic discussions with people I’d likely never have an opportunity to meet. While I doubt our critiques of the then BAM, now BRAINI, were at all involved with the changes to it, I still felt involved.

Like Justin, I have specific concerns about how the project is being sold to the public. At a time when trust in scientists is at an all time low, we just cannot afford to oversell the feasibility of our research leading to cures for specific diseases. We need to be seen discussing science. Let the public see how it works, how decisions are made on where to apply resources, the dissent, the agreement.  In sum, let them see how the sausage gets made. It may reveal us to be petty and unforgiving at times, egotistical and pedantic at others, but in reality, it demonstrates that we are human. That we are just like every other person who has to make decisions, difficult decisions where the outcome is uncertain.

As the morning went on I kept thinking about this event. But my reading of the letter from Larry Swanson was a little bit different than Justin’s. I’ve worried that the BRAIN is the emperor’s new clothes. Now I think the SfN president thinks so too. I don’t think that a decorated scientist would worry about a well conceived project being held up to the light of day. But, if the public thinks that they are being sold a bill of goods, then the repercussions could be very bad indeed. And to head that off, he tried to control the debate. Instead, we are left with another distraction, and an deeper chasm between groups who feel enfranchised and included and those who feel like their on the outside looking in.

Of course the morning turned to afternoon and my Twitter feed quickly became comprised of news (plus rumor & lies) about the events in Boston, and of the tweets of people who had yet to hear. Of course it’s far to early to speculate on what motivated a person or persons to do what they did. But, whether it was personal, political, religious or psychotic, it was done to make some sort of point. The point could be, they hate the USA, or they hate taxes or fags or just that they can hurt us. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter to me, nor will knowing likely bring any comfort to those killed, maimed or terrified by the event.

What does matter is that whatever their purpose, it is now beyond compassion. They have created a tidal wave against whatever idea drove them to commit such a heinous, cowardly and despicable act. Perhaps they too felt marginalized, on the outside looking in, never to get a chance to be part of the debate. Now they will be forever. Whatever the motivation for trying to commit mass murder, I know this – people will run the Boston Marathon again, people will laugh and share joy with their friends as they do so again, they will celebrate the goodness that they witnessed during the day.

And isn’t that the real tragedy of the world we live in? We are alive at a time when it’s possible to engage strangers from thousands of miles away. We can keep in touch with people orbiting the planet in the International Space Station (follow @Cmdr_Hadfield if you aren’t already). And yet, people in power, whether it be something as banal as Larry Swanson trying to keep debate about BRAIN out of the public eye or something as serious as Barack Obama trying to move the squash questions about drones, they are completely missing the point. Engage us. Hear what we have to say. If at the end, your decision is unchanged, at least we will know we are part of the process. The technology is there, please use it.