One of the Science Alert science facts for 2016 called into question

In an article last week, we discussed the Science Alert list of the 23 science facts that emerged in 2016.

Writing in the NeuroLogicaBlog, Dr. Steven Novella raises significant concerns in regard to one of the 23 science facts: that it’s possible to live a normal life without 90 percent of your brain. Novella describes the Science Alert article as “an excellent example of horrible science news reporting”, and “a cautionary tale of what can happen when a reporter does not adequately vet their story with actual experts”.

The Science Alert article states that “brain scans revealed that [the man’s] skull was mostly filled with fluid, leaving just a thin outer layer of actual brain tissue, with the internal part of his brain almost totally eroded away.” However, Novella states that rather than having a large proportion of his brain mass eroded by hydrocephalus, the man’s brain was instead heavily compressed by it: “his brain is mostly all still there, just pressed into a thin cortical rim. He did not lose 90% of his brain mass”.

The Science Alert article further states that the man’s case “is causing scientists to rethink what it is from a biological perspective that makes us conscious.” However, Novella states that the journalist “got off on an irrelevant tangent about consciousness, even though this case reports [sic] has not [sic] implications for our understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness.”

Novella says that while the man has a normal day-to-day life, his IQ of 75 is borderline functional:

A person with that IQ can typically go about their normal day-to-day life, even get married, have children, and hold down a job. But they will have profound intellectual limitations. They will likely be untrainable beyond the simplest tasks, may not be able to make change, would be challenged by complex electronics or other appliances, and would have poor problem solving. Obviously one number does not capture all the variability present, but this is a basic picture of typical functioning at that level.
It is important to note that this level of impairment is in proportion to the physical brain damage caused by the chronic hydrocephalus. There is no mystery here, no challenge to the neuroscientific paradigm of cognitive function. This case does not challenge the notion that consciousness is a brain function.

In concluding, Novella states that the Science Alert article is “a good example of an interesting scientific story that is horribly mangled by a reporter who simply did not understand what was really going on and failed to properly put the story together.” That this could occur in Science Alert, a highly respected source of science information, is a matter of serious concern.


Originally published at RealKM.