Science, Lemons, and Press Releases

Posted on Apr 24, 2011

I don’t normally write about what I read on social networks, but this time I feel obliged.  The same discovery titled “Functioning Synapse Created Using Carbon Nanotubes: Devices Might Be Used in Brain Prostheses or Synthetic Brains” has been showing up at multiple places, and the claims are substantial:

Engineering researchers the University of Southern California have made a significant breakthrough in the use of nanotechnologies for the construction of a synthetic brain. They have built a carbon nanotube synapse circuit whose behavior in tests reproduces the function of a neuron, the building block of the brain.

Having piqued my interest, I proceeded to try tracking down this paper.  The first ~30 google results using the names mentioned in the article returned the same write-up; eventually I found the manuscript.  (Link here.)  What’s interesting is the throng of adoring and alarmed comments nesting near each result (that doesn’t link to the manuscript), ranging from “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am about ready to cry now.” to “HAL is here!”

I suspect none of them actually read the paper itself; why?  Because the press release is misleading.  The press title suggests that a functioning synapse was created in a lab; the paper did no such thing.  A circuit that would use CN-FET was designed.  I think we can all appreciate the difference between “a bridge was built” and “a CAD drawing of a bridge was made” — the difference is of the same type.  (Only the gap is larger, because bridges – all six types of them – were built many times already.)  The “behavior in tests reproduces the function of a neuron”?  They’re digital simulations of the circuit.

Is what was shown in the paper new?  No and yes.  CN-FET are known for some time.  Equivalent circuits for neurons are known for a long time.  Design of CN-FET circuits have been done.  Modelling and realization of circuits that replicates an action potential / post synaptic potential is likewise not new.  I presume that conjunction of them, “the drawing of circuits that shows AP/PSP using CN-FET as components” is new, but… that’s a far cry from the headline “functional synapses created using carbon nanotubes“, isn’t it?

What do I think, as a scientist?  If I was a co-author, I would insist the university press corps tune it down.  The coverage is simply undeserved, and I would be greatly embarrassed to have such a disingenuous mentionings attached to my name.  As a concerned citizen, I think “spinning” science does great disservice to both the scientific community and the wider world.  There is differential access to information for the lay-person: sometimes these material are gated, and in any case, few people would track down, attempt, and have the ability to understand the original claims/evidence.  The wider world often have to trust that the scientists and PR all act in good faith.  Semi-false PR claims undermine this trust and brings about the Market of Lemons; the bad, ultimately, drives out the good.