I know it's hard to believe, but sometimes scientists are stupid. Perhaps because President George W. Bush declared last week "Protection from Pornography Week," I spent a lot of time thinking about dubious public policies that grow out of bad science.
Uppermost in my mind was a study conducted by a limelight-loving geneticist named Eric Vilain at UCLA, who studied the brains of embryonic mice and declared he was well on the way to discovering how humans become gay and transsexual. What his team of researchers actually discovered was that the brains of male and female fetal mice were slightly different on the genetic level. And these differences preceded the period of development when the mice started producing testosterone or estrogen.
The neat part of the study, then, was discovering that gender differences in mice aren't entirely the result of hormones. That's cool; it's a great discovery and has the potential to explain a few things about humans after a great deal more research has been done. A smart, ethical scientist would emphasize that more research needs to be done before we know what any of this stuff means for humans, whose brains are infinitely more complicated than those of mice. We don't even know if these genetic differences exist in the human brain yet, and we also don't know what the differences mean in mice.
But Vilain, wanting no doubt to get his study splashed across the pages of more widely read periodicals than Molecular Brain Research, decided to creatively embellish his work. He told countless reporters that his research could explain "why we feel male or female" and that this meant "physical attraction was hardwired by the brain." He even suggested this might reveal why women "can sometimes articulate their feelings more clearly" than men can. Headlines across the country declared "the brain may hard-wire sexuality before birth."
This is bad science at its most absurd and damaging. Vilain leaped to the conclusion that humans share these sex-specific brain differences with mice (there is nothing but speculation to support this claim); and he simply fabricated the idea that the genes might have something to do with sexual attraction and articulating feelings clearly. Why should sex determination in mouse brains have anything to do with what humans find physically attractive? And, given that these are mice brains we're talking about, it's hard to imagine the genes in question affect "articulation."
Possibly the worst part of all this is the public health policy Vilain suggests we might institute based on his work. Noting that thousands of babies are born every year with ambiguous genitalia, he suggests we could test human brains to see what gender they are in order to determine what sex to assign to such babies. Right now the policy on what to do with them varies from region to region: doctors in San Francisco suggest parents wait and allow their children to decide what gender they want to be; doctors in Butte eyeball the hapless infant's genitals and simply make a judgment call. On Vilain's suggestion, however, doctors would check gene expression in the baby's brain and determine his or her gender thusly.
Great. We are now mandating human medical policy based on mouse brains.
Of course, nothing could be more stupid than a new scholarly book coming out from Cambridge University Press just in time for Valentine's Day next year. Based on the alleged social scientific research of a University of Haifa philosophy professor named Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, "Love Online: Emotions on the Internet" attempts to lay the groundwork for a new understanding of romance based on what people do in AOL chat rooms. As if 1995 had never happened, Ben-Ze'ev gushingly informs us about what "virtual sex" is and explains that some people wonder "whether it's cheating."
While this makes Ben-Ze'ev a little behind the times, it's not really bad science. Where he gets into hot water is in a series of chapters devoted to the idea that people have "privacy" online, and that as a result they are able to develop new kinds of relationships. The problem is, Ben-Ze'ev makes no distinction between perceived privacy and actual privacy. Without once nodding to the technical impossibility of privacy and anonymity on AOL or practically any online community, Ben-Ze'ev's findings are useless. He has based his entire analysis of a sexual culture on faulty definitions.
Just because it's called science doesn't mean it isn't basically just somebody's moronic fantasy.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd whose brain is full of genes that make her want to wiggle her nose and eat cheese. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.