The One that Got Away

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

A dead fish has caused a stink over false positives in fMRI studies, and while gloom and doom reign at UN climate talks, renting a movie you actually like has never been easier.

Illustration: Mike Pick

Plenty of people, whether they’re marine biologists, expert anglers, or your garden-variety vegan, are concerned with what’s going on in a salmon’s mind. But most of these people are chiefly interested in fishy thoughts when the fish is alive. Not so with Craig Bennett: The Dartmouth neuroscientist put a dead salmon in a fMRI machine and scanned its brain. What he found could put a serious dent in the perceived validity of this increasingly prevalent form of neuroimaging, but it also might be an example of the power of coincidence to shape our worldviews. 

Bennett actually performed this scan more than four years ago, as part of an escalating competition with his colleagues to scan ridiculous objects. It wasn’t until he was working on a paper dealing with problematic false positives in fMRI analysis that he decided to process the salmon’s scans on more than an anatomical level.

Bennett takes pains to point out that, at the time of the scanning, this was, in fact, an ex-salmon. Nevertheless, the image produced by the fMRI machine seemed to indicate neural activity. This was a total coincidence—as Bennett says, phantom data shows up in scans all the time—but it was one that gave the impression of a deeper meaning. After presenting these findings at the Human Brain Mapping conference in June, Bennett is now looking for “an open-minded journal” to accept his salmon paper. 

Here’s to him finding one. Especially following the controversy stirred up in Ed Vul’s Voodoo Correlations paper, work like Bennett’s could lead to neuroscientists casting a more skeptical eye toward the tools of their trade, or at least taking extra steps to validate their findings. At the very least, it will give him a lock on an IgNobel Prize

Prize catch

Serious academic laurels—like the Nobels or Kavlis— are often touted as drivers of scientific progress and innovation, but the private sector can offer an appealing, and potentially more effective, alternative. Netflix has been putting this theory to the test. (Science done in the name of improving a movie rental company’s customer service is still science, right?)

With the exception of the brick-and-mortar video rental stores that it is helping to put out of business, it seems that everyone loves Netflix (some people apparently love it too much). One reason is Netflix’s immense library of titles—there are more than a 100,000 to choose from. But size isn’t everything. The company also prides itself on its ability to help users navigate this ocean of film by accurately recommending movies that they will like. These recommendations have improved incrementally since their implementation in 2000, but in 2006, the company decided to take drastic action to further refine them,  announcing a $1 million prize for the first team to beat their recommendation system’s accuracy by more than 10 percent.

On Monday, the “BellKor Pragmatic Chaos” team claimed this prize. Last year, when Clive Thompson spoke with some of the BellKor team members in writing his excellent feature on the prize—and the problems faced by recommendation engines in general—the team was contending with the “The Napoleon Dynamite Problem,” which refers to the difficulty of assessing movies that people rate either very highly or lowly, not that Kip stayed home and ate all the freakin’ chips.”

Indeed, developing a computer program that can figure out what a particular person’s preferences are is a notoriously difficult challenge; it epitomizes the contrast between the smooth precision of math and the messiness of human lives. Indeed, a MIT team is making headlines for writing a program that can predict with considerable accuracy, apparently, a man’s sexual preference. The program makes this determination based on personal information culled from the subject’s Facebook friends, but the program has almost no success doing the same with women.

Dangling a $1 million carrot certainly helped in getting Netflix problem solved. It also put it on par with the hardest math problems in the world, if the value placed on the solution is a suitable metric. The seven Millennium Prize Problems each have a $1 million bounty on them, and, so far, only one has been solved. Of course, the man who solved it famously rejected his winnings, so it’s not guaranteed that these inducement prizes will galvanize all parts of the scientific community.

It’s certainly worth a shot, however, especially if the money is coming from the private sector. And the X-Prize Foundation and its various well-heeled partners are now taking aim at thornier problems than whether you will like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (The correct answer is “yes.”)

The initial X-Prize went to the first private team to reach the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. With the recent announcement that water has been definitively discovered on the Moon, it’s not hard to picture a future where private companies are tapped to get the Earth’s first permanent moon base and mining operation off the ground.

Bigger fish to fry

Those companies might want to get started. It was hard to come away from the UN climate summit on Tuesday without a somewhat gloomy disposition. Though some of the major players in international climate negotiations made impassioned speeches, there was a palpable sense that all this speechifying is masking the fact that Copenhagen will be an utter failure.

China and India are willing to make some carbon concessions in the run-up to December’s big meeting, but US climate legislation remains stymied by the ongoing healthcare debate. There will almost certainly be nothing passed by the time the conference starts. Without concrete action on Capitol Hill, Obama’s envoys will have little leverage in convincing other nations to pick up the slack, especially as most major carbon emitters have a much lower per-capita carbon footprint

The only standout idea came from French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who proposed…another conference. Well, that and a global climate governing body, which will surely go over well with the skeptics who think this whole green movement is actually a front for international communism

Despair over this inaction has probably helped radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen’s cause. An article of his in Orion Magazine has recently been making the rounds. It argues that most ecologically-minded behavior is little more than self-flagellation, a gratuitous and ultimately useless display of sacrifice to a greater cause. 

However, it’s likely that many have misapprehended Jensen’s point. I certainly did, until I saw the end of the Star Wars spoof that recently propelled his ideas into wider circulation. Rather than echoing the sentiments of Elizabeth Kolbert in her review of No Impact Man and other recent eco-stunt books, Jensen argues that civilization is inherently incapable of reform, and therefore should be dismantled (violently, if necessary) before it causes our ecosystem to totally collapse.

While I agree that most ecological activism is closer to throwing a pie in Darth Vader’s face than to blowing up the Death Star, I’d like to stave off climate change because I like cities and don’t want to see them under water. They might actually be the best chance we have to survive the future, provided we make some serious changes to the way we design, build, and live in them. Call me crazy, but I’m in the pro-civilization camp. 

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published September 25, 2009

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