Monday, January 2, 2017

On Scientific Terms: A Knowledge Gap Between Scientists and Laypersons

Note: This is an excerpt from a paper I finished in December entitled Fringes and Folkways: Why Pharmaceutical Antidepressants are More Successful 
Than Herbal Medications. I thought the following section had some interesting ideas about language and epistemology.

Pharmaceutical antidepressants include monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It is important to note that there are some discrepancies between how these medications are intended to operate. In order to understand how MAO inhibitors work, I must first explain what monoamine oxidase refers to. Monoamine oxidase is an enzyme that decreases serotonin levels within the axon terminal in the brain (Kolb and Whishaw 174). The three key terms in this definition are ‘enzyme,’ ‘serotonin,’ and ‘axon terminal.’ These will also be important when defining TCAs and SSRIs. An enzyme is a protein that originates from a living cell and is able to produce chemical changes in organic substances, by means of chemical action ( Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter within many neurological processes, such as sleep, memory, and even depression itself ( An axon terminal is a part of the axon which allows it to make contact with other nerve cells or effector cells (Farlex Partner). Since the MAO enzyme decreases serotonin levels, MAO inhibitors work as an opposing response, that is to say, their purpose is to increase serotonin and have it released, rather than decreased. TCAs and SSRIs, on the other hand, inhibit the transporter which delivers serotonin to the axon terminal (Kolb and Whishaw 174).

What can be gathered from the terminology and definitions just mentioned is that although pharmaceutical antidepressants operate differently, they all share the purpose of promoting proper brain chemistry. From these terms and definitions, it is recognized that proper serotonin levels are of utmost importance. General understanding aside, critical thinking on the knowledge I have brought into focus is also important. While some might find themselves convinced by such esoteric language, an immediate sociological concern comes to my attention. Health and illness are experienced by all people, so why do neuroscientists resort to using such abstract language to explain brain functions and components? Terms like ‘enzyme,’ ‘serotonin’ and ‘axon terminal’ are not used in routine conversations. It is ironic how there is this, albeit non-monetary, privatization of knowledge in the written theories, considering health-systems whom operate from this paradigm are meant to serve the public, and it seems intuitive that a great number of persons would not understand what these terms meant. 

The plausibility of the idea that the brain has different sections that serve different functions, as well as the objectivity of how these sections are to be referred to, are also questionable matters. First of all, science is defined as “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation” (; emphasis mine). The plain truth of the matter is that nobody has actually seen a functioning brain in itself. The closest humans have come to achieving such observation is through technology such as magnetic resource imaging (MRI). But the results these scanners render are not true access to the brains themselves; they are mere images. This is not some abstract, philosophic notion that has no practical utility, as some scientists have affirmed this attitude. To substantiate this claim, I would like to provide a quotation from neuroradiologist Mario Mastroianis: “The images pretend a precision and objectivity which is not really there” (Burri 375; emphasis mine).

Moreover, whose observation counts in obtaining scientific knowledge? It seems to me that there are two main types of actors who can achieve such observation in the first place: laypersons and scientists themselves. Considering techniques to understand the brain, whether that is through MRI scans or otherwise, it is the scientists who have access to these methods, not laypersons. With this observation, the question becomes one of whose narrative is more trustworthy: that of personal experience and accumulation of information or secondary information and interpretation of that information. If personal experience is more trustworthy, this is of course problematic for laypersons because such people probably do not have the time or resources to practice science ‘properly,’ at least, to the standards of the scientific community at large. For scientists, however, this is not a problem because they are the ones publishing the accounts of their practices and observations, and are the ones who the laypersons are told to trust. This is to say that laypersons are on the receiving end of the second narrative I mentioned, meaning that laypersons receive secondary information and must interpret that information as laypersons. This means that laypersons are not using empiricist methods to understand phenomena that are meant to be understood empirically. In the case of what a patient is told about their brain, they do not get to see it for themselves, and according to Mastroianis, neither do scientists. The other problem is that scientists have paradigms by which their thought collectives interpret and explain their findings. Unless a layperson has a penchant for autonomous study, chances are high that their interpretations of scientific information do not meet the standards of the scientific community.

Works Cited

Burri, Regula Valérie. "Visual Power in Action: Digital Images and the Shaping of  Medical Practices." Science as Culture, vol. 22, no. 3, 2013, pp. 367-387. DOI:  10.1080/09505431.2013.768223. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016. “enzyme.” Unabridged. Random House, Inc, n.d.. Accessed 10 Dec. 2016. “science.” Unabridged. Random House, Inc, n.d.. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016. “serotonin.” Unabridged. Random House, Inc, n.d. Accessed 10 Dec. 2016.

Kolb, Bryan and Whishaw, Ian Q. “The Influence of Drugs and Hormones on Behavior.” Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 
2009, pp. 163-196.

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