Friday, January 26, 2007

Researcher of Gay Sheep Claims He's Misunderstood

Like many other bloggers, I picked up on a story in the Sunday Times of London about researchers working on homosexuality in sheep. Today, the New York Times is reporting that the researchers objected to being portrayed as abusing animals and potentially contributing to medical "cures" for homosexuality in humans.

It should be said that the Sunday Times article was wrong about devices being implanted in the sheep's brains. But, after reading the scientists' rebuttal, I'm not convinced that much else about the article was wrong. Sheep are, in fact, killed in the experiment. To which the researcher, Dr. Charles Roselli, responds: "Why would you pick on a guy who’s killing maybe 18 sheep a year, when there’s maybe four million killed for food and clothing in this country?" OK, sure, he's not a flagrant example of animal cruelty, but he's still killing animals for less-than-necessary research.

To charges that their research finding a fix for homosexuality in sheep fuels the idea that human homosexuality should be fixed, rather than accepted, Roselli responded that they had never claimed their research would help find a cure for human homosexuality. When he wrote that the research "has broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans," he was using "control" in a scientific way that we laypeople couldn't possibly understand. And, he said, he only mentions human implications because scientists are "forced to draw connections [to humans] in a way that we can justify our research."

Now that is the weakest claim of all. It essentially says that, however disturbing the potential human use of his research might be, you can't blame Roselli for doing what he has to do to get money. That argument wouldn't even stand if the research were more vital than increasing sheep fertility.

The Times article is way too sympathetic, making gay activists look too stupid to understand science, and letting Dr. Roselli off the hook without even asking him if he would reject grant money from the mad scientists at, say, the Foundation for the Family.

Baaaad Times.


emptypockets said...

The Sunday Times article was wrong about a lot more than you give them credit for. They say that the researchers (1) are trying to cure homosexuality, (2) have already done it in sheep, (3) that a "skin patch" to cure homosexuality in humans is around the corner, and (4) the total misstatements about what the experiments actually are. (And those are just the points that matter -- never mind that they also said Roselli currently has a paper under review, or other fabrications.)

The fact that they got the details of the experimental methodology wrong is only really important to show that they didn't bother to actually read any of the published work or care about the science.

I'm not sure what your position is here though -- that all animal research should be stopped? Or just that newspaper readers, rather than the peer review sessions run by NIH, should decide which experiments are worthwhile? Or just that we shouldn't try to study the biological basis of behavior at all?

Gabriele said...

Hmmm . . . science can be troubling on its own, what with the ways that scientific questions are framed in terms of unquestioned social biases and assumptions, and of course the naive interpretations made by non-scientists tend to make it all worse. So many of us, including myself, are pretty scientifically illiterate.
The girlfriend of one of my sister's professors at Reed was doing gay sheep experiments up at OHSU, and I'm quite sure that was from a pro-gay rights perspective (though I don't know more about it, and of course there are lots of different pro-gay perspectives. . .)