Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Brain That Couldn't Shoot Straight

The NY Times Magazine feature story by Luke Dittrich — "The Brain That Couldn’t Remember"  (NY Times Magazine 8/7/16) — is generating intense, and likely ongoing, controversy.  The account that piece presents of Suzanne Corkin's work with Henry Molaison, who was rendered amnesiac by an operation,  is being challenged by figures like Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett both of whom knew Corkin. There is also a letter signed by 200 brain scientists saying the portrayal of Corkin as a careerist who destroyed evidence that might have undermined her books and papers about Molaison contradicts, "everything we have known about her as a scientist, colleague, and friend.”

Further, MIT professors, having examined in detail the charges Dittrich makes against Corkin, rebut them in pretty convincing fashion. They conclude: "Journalists are absolutely correct to hold scientists to very high standards. [We] believe she more than achieved those high standards. However, the author (and, implicitly, the Times) has failed to do so."

The Times is said to have responded to allegations that it failed in its duty to fact-check. I look forward.

The story is still breaking about collision or collusion between journalism and medical science at the highest level.

On first reading, I found the Dittrich piece persuasive. Evidence is mounting, though, that it was partial and defamatory.

Great findings have a way of bursting out when literary ambition bangs high speed into neuroscience, as in a cultural Large Hadron Collider).

On the superb side, there is the incomparable Oliver Sacks, almost as much much a devoted scribbler, a man of innumerable notebooks, as he was a brain scientist. On the downside, there is, for example, the lowly Jonah Lehrer, who plagiarized and fabricated about many things, Bob Dylan included, but fabricated and fantasized most when it came to neuroscience.

Because that's what we want to know about: the brain, the mind, the brain, the mind. Always have wanted to know, I suspect, since we had the kind of brain mind brain that wanted to.

But who to trust?

Did the Times get it wrong in trusting Luke Dittrich, whose book on this subject — "Patient H.M. : A Story Of Memory, Madness And Family Secrets" — has just been published?

There's no way he's an Oliver Sacks? But is he no better than a discredited Jonah Lehrer?

If so, why did that get by the Times?



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