This past weekend I was lucky to attend Science Foo (Sci Foo) Camp at the MountainView Google campus. Sci Foo, the science focused variant of Foo Camp, is an invitation only gathering of passionate individuals, which is run by O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, Nature Publishing Group, and Google Inc. The experience was extremely positive, and it’s clear that the organizers and volunteers put a lot of work into making things run seamlessly.
This event was an unparalleled opportunity to meet experts from across the world, studying everything from tiny molecules to exoplanets to, of course, brains. The weekend was run in an un-conference format, meaning that the schedule was generated organically by attendees throughout the 2 days. People were encouraged to run sessions on things they were passionate about, and to attend sessions on topics they knew nothing about. I took both of these pieces of advice to heart.
Did you know that origami is a field of engineering? Or that dark matter is passing through us all the time?
I also took the opportunity to lead a discussion on DIY neurotechnology, with an emphasis on DIY brain stimulation and its implications for public safety. The result was a fascinating discussion on open access, citizen science, and scientific communication. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to this conversation both during the session, and throughout the weekend. Below are some of my main takeaways:
Increasing trust in science is essential
While this is true across the board, it is especially true in the case of emerging technologies that suggest a health benefit. There is no denying that the history of science and healthcare is riddled with violations of public trust, especially in the case of vulnerable or disadvantaged communities. Take the thalidomide incident as an example, where a reportedly safe over-the-counter morning sickness pill caused massive birth defects. Or the MMR vaccine, which was reported to cause autism, but has since been shown to be both safe and effective. Events like these have contributed to the perception that scientists and medical professionals frequently withhold important information for personal gain.
The perception that science cannot be trusted leaves people vulnerable to products that market themselves as at home, natural, or non-invasive alternatives to medical treatments.
Open Science is a great way to start (re)building this trust
Keeping scientific knowledge privileged to those who have attained a certain level of formal education (or have enough money to afford scientific journal subscriptions) compounds the problem of public mistrust. For many, it means having little access to information beyond reports that paint novel findings as unambiguously positive, and de-emphasize the remaining unknowns. This effect can be mitigated by giving people access to publications (even data!) – complete with all the ambiguity inherent in science. For great open access journals, check out eLife, PeerJ, and PlosOne.
However, it’s important that publications do their best to not contribute to the hype.
Be an active participant in your safety
Science moves slowly, and is constantly changing. If something is extremely new, wait a while for the results to be replicated. If the data is available to you, go ahead and try to replicate it yourself! Above all, talk to people. Talk to people in the field if it’s not your area of expertise. Talk to everyone if it is your area of expertise. Twitter is a fantastic place to ask questions and share knowledge. Most importantly, never (ever) try out a therapy on yourself, or encourage someone else to do so without the advice of a medical professional. Do not take positive findings in media or in scientific literature as an indication that something is safe and effective to use in an everyday context.
To quote a recent news article on brain stimulation “You only have one brain. Wait for the research to catch up with all the hype.” (Neuroscientist Matthew Krause)
Final thoughts on the Science Foo Experience
Stepping outside your knowledge sphere is terrifying but extremely rewarding, and challenges you to think about the things you know in a completely new way. If you enjoy learning really cool things and having insightful discussions with incredible people, then Sci Foo is a great place to be.