Save science, employ an economist

The following is my original Laboratorytalk editor’s column from 9 December 2009. 

Don’t you love it when new research overturns a fact so widely understood that it has become a cliche? The history of science is littered with revelations that turned received wisdom on its head, ranging from the profound to the inane.

When I was a boy, for instance, it was universally understood that stomach ulcers were caused by stress – or if not that,  by spicy food. I suspect a good many people think these are still major causes, rather than the bacterium H Pylori, as is now understood to be the case.

Household dust is 80% human skin particles, as everybody knows – everybody, that is, that hasn’t actually checked. In my house, it’s mostly mud (I know because I’ve ‘scoped it). And men do not think of sex every seven seconds, no matter what you might have read in some vapid magazine article.

The latest case of research reversing a fact that everyone knows will have those vapid magazine writers struggling for a new cliché. Testosterone, the male hormone, does not fuel agresssion – according to a paper published yesterday in Nature. On the face of it, this is so startling a conclusion that my first reaction was dismissive, quickly followed by a quick calendar check to make sure it really was December, not early April. Surely this can not be the case?

Testosterone does not make men act more mannishly, says scientific research conducted by non-scientists

The researchers at Royal Holloway University of London, and the University of Zurich, conducted a behavioural experiment involving subjects playing a game of negotiation, having been administered either a dose of testosterone or a placebo. Those given the actual hormone might be expected to behave more aggressively and take risky positions, but the opposite was observed. Testosterone-enhanced males in this experiment actually behaved more cooperatively, making fairer offers with a lower risk of rejection.

A couple of aspects of this work make me uneasy. We have to assume that the science is solid, as it has presumably been through the notoriously rigorous peer review process for one of the world’s leading scientific journals. But the story is presented as overturning a commonly-held misconception about testosterone, when it really does nothing of the sort. This isn’t a case of peptic ulcers and an assumed relationship, nor is it a case of urban myth based on repetition of a made-up but plausible ‘fact’.

Anybody who has ever had a pet cat neutered will be aware that there is a demonstrable link between stereotypical ‘male’ behaviour and the presence of testes. It is far too simplistic, in my view, to let testosterone off the hook based on this one set of experiments.

The background of the researchers also has to be noted. While one of them is a neuroscientist, there was no actual neuroscience performed here. It was a behavioural experiment of the type favoured by psychologists – human lab rats in a maze. The other two researchers (including the lead researcher) are not psychologists, nor are they any type of biologist or chemist or clinician. They are economists.

Now, I’m all for breaking down the barriers between scientific disciplines, but really? We’re expected to re-write the books on hormones and behaviour, based on a psychological experiment performed by a couple of economists? I don’t think so.

The work does, though, provide us with one valuable new insight. The events of the last couple of years in the global economy must have left many economists with, erm, time on their hands. To save these poor souls from getting any new jobs in economics (the world cannot afford that), they can be retrained as scientific researchers and set work to overturn a whole raft of basic assumptions.

Black can become white (they have already demonstrated their efficiency at turning black into red), and up can become down (the skills that turned growth into recession must surely be able to turn, say, gravity into anti-gravity).

A brave new era beckons, in which all of our problems will be solved by those heroes of the human race – economists!