Sharing knowledge – effectively!

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“Alone we go fast, together we go far.” So goes the proverb quoted by a leading neuroscientist involved in a major new project bringing together 21 labs in Europe and the United States for research on the brain. The international team aims to discover “where, when, and how neurons in the brain take information from the outside world, make sense of it, and work out how to respond.” What’s interesting for the Theory of Knowledge classroom is the commitment undertaken by all the labs to work within a shared framework.

Shared knowledge, as we teach in TOK, is a goal of science. Working within the explanatory framework of a theory held in common, scientists can contribute as individuals and small groups to a larger communal enterprise.  Using common models and terminology, they can check each other’s work and build communal knowledge — shared knowledge. But this ideal doesn’t “just happen” and, while an accepted theory does give a shared understanding, it doesn’t necessarily point the way to specific experiments.

What I like about the current example of the International Brain Laboratory (IBL), launched on September 19, is that it gives us a window into the process of making science better – making the sharing more effective by agreeing in advance on common approaches to lab work, analysis, and software:

“The IBL was born largely out the realisation that many problems in modern neuroscience are too hard for a single lab to crack. But the founding scientists are also frustrated at how research is done today. While many neuroscientists work on the same problems, labs differ in the experiments and data analyses they run, often making it impossible to compare results across labs and build up a confident picture of what is really happening in the brain….

“The IBL hopes to overcome these flaws. Scientists on the project will work on exactly the same problems in precisely the same way. Animal experiments, for example, will use one strain of mouse, and all will be trained, tested and scored in the same way. It is an obvious strategy, but not a common one in science: in any lab, there is a constant urge to tweak experiments to make them better. “Ultimately, the reason it’s worth addressing is in the proverb: ‘alone we go fast, together we go far’,” said Churchland, [a neuroscientist involved in the project].

“The IBL’s results will be analysed with the same software and shared with other members immediately. The openness mirrors the way physicists work at Cern, the particle physics laboratory near Geneva that is home to the Large Hadron Collider.” 

It also illustrates some of the striking characteristics of contemporary science – the involvement of international teams rather than solitary individuals, and the sophisticated use of technology for both research and communication. On the launch page of their project of “global neuroscience collaboration” on September 19, 2017, the new group declared, “We have created a virtual laboratory.”

The nature of the problems that the IBL will tackle first is also interesting within our TOK course. The research is directed toward understanding how the brain makes decisions. It will initially focus on sense perception, and how it operates as a way of knowing.

Taking a contemporary example such as this one to class helps students recognize the importance, in science, not just of getting the right results but on refining the process – improving methodology for larger gains in knowledge.

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International Brain Laboratory

Ian Sample, “Ambitious neuroscience project to probe how the brain makes decisions”, The Guardian. September 19, 2017.

image: Creative Commons, Pixabay