Biology in the News Explained

Mainstream science reporting is generally untrustworthy

This article about “gay sheep” research in the New York Times has the ironic purpose of describing how the mainstream media distort science.

In this example, a quote by the researcher was taken completely out of its scientific context:

“The release quoted Dr. Roselli as saying that the research “also has broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans.”"

“Control,” in Dr. Roselli’s context, refers to how the brain controls behavior, given its anatomy and physiology. Yet of course media reports implied that the scientists were for some reason interested in “controlling” gay behavior – i.e. somehow figuring out how to “turn” gays into heterosexuals. According to the original paper referred to by the Times and presumably other articles, their interest is purely in the interaction of brain anatomy and animal behavior [ROSELLI et al, 2004. The Volume of a Sexually Dimorphic Nucleus in the Ovine Medial Preoptic Area/Anterior Hypothalamus Varies with Sexual Partner Preference. Endocrinology 145(2):478-483]:


Similar to the results in humans, the variability in oSDN measurements
within each group of sheep was large compared with the differences
between groups, and it is impossible to predict the sexual
partner preference of any individual on the basis of a single
brain measurement. Nor do the present data allow us to
determine whether the observed differences in the size of the
oSDN are the cause or consequence of an animal’s sexual
partner preference, or whether the size of the oSDN is influenced
by other unidentified variables. However, experiments
in several species (11) have shown that the development
of sexually dimorphic nuclei within MPOA/AH is the
direct result of exposure to testosterone or its metabolites
during a critical period in prenatal or early neonatal life.
Although it seems likely that the size of the SDN in sheep is
also established by testosterone exposure early, this relationship
has not yet been established.


In other words, the authors are careful to point out the chicken-and-egg problem of correlating brain structure with behavior: innate structural differences can affect behavior, but lifetime experience can alter brain structure itself (how else would we be able to store memories?). This is why media accounts of gender studies showing “genetic” differences between males and females get my hackles up – by the time a baby is born, its environment (starting day 1 in the womb) has already affected its development.

Why study “gay” animal behavior if you don’t have some sort of political agenda? I can give one good reason, off the top of my head. Many behavioral traits are very difficult to quantify and correlate with brain structure. Homosexual behavior is easy to study as a clear either-or behavior (at least in this case). Why not go for the slam-dunk of really being able to correlate specific behavior with a brain structure? Because it’s cool. That’s why scientists do their research – because it’s cool. I guarantee you it isn’t for the money. But of course a brush with fame is tempting, and we all want the world to know that our research is cool. Unfortunately many scientists, not really aware of life outside their ivory lab, get excited about the media attention without realizing how it can get out of control when a hotbed topic is concerned. I had a friend in grad school who studied sex in nematodes. When he discovered that male nematodes that never had sex lived longer than male nematodes that did, it wasn’t just in the Science Times, it hit the front page (which was OK with him). What does nematode biology have to do with humans? Absolutely nothing. But sex sells.

In my own case, a Science paper on a topic less sexy but of burgeoning importance to environmentalists, nontarget attacks by biological control agents, led to an NPR interview, and I discovered how that works: all the intelligent things you say during the interview come out of the interviewer’s mouth in the finished piece, and all the dorky things are when you are actually talking.


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