Saturday, June 9, 2018

Nicole C. Nelson's "Model Behavior"

Nicole C. Nelson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research examines scientists’ assumptions about the natural world and how these assumptions shape scientific practice. She also does research on new technologies in oncology research and clinical care.

Nelson applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Model Behavior: Animal Experiments, Complexity, and the Genetics of Psychiatric Disorders, and reported the following:
Model Behavior is an ethnographic study of what laboratory work looks like under assumptions of complexity. Laboratories are spaces where scientists attempt to refine and control nature to get answers to questions that would be impossible to ask in messy, real-world settings, but some phenomena remain maddeningly difficult to study even in these carefully controlled places—a poorly timed fire alarm or the smell of a pet dog might be all it takes to make a mouse hide out in the dark corners of a maze rather than go exploring. Moreover, the more controlled the setting, the further away scientists found themselves from the real-world problems they cared about, such as helping people who suffer from anxiety.

Under these conditions, the scientists that I followed learned to be very cautious about the conclusions they drew from the research they conducted. Page 99 of the book finds me seated next to a scientist who was analyzing data from a mouse experiment on anxiety, eating my lunch as I watched recordings of the experiment with him:
At one point in watching the video I commented, “That guy really likes the open arms” when the mouse that we were watching at the time seemed to be spending more time there than the others. There was silence, and then Dr. Lam said, “Don’t say ‘like.’”…He said that you should never say things such as “the mouse likes the open arms” or “the mouse is less anxious,” you should say things like “the mouse spends a higher percentage of time in the open arms” or “the mouse shows less anxiety-like behavior.”
The exchange recorded on page 99 is a good example of what the ethnographic method is all about—placing yourself in situations where your ignorance will provide opportunities for others to teach you about their culture. My initial lack of understanding of why behavioral scientists used cumbersome phrases such as “anxiety-like behavior” to talk about their mice helped me better understand how they saw their work. For these scientists, the data from animal models was only a tentative first step towards understanding a complex problem, and the language they used served as a reminder that their mouse experiments were only a proxy for human anxiety. By studying with the scientists, I learned to see the nuances they saw in their own data, and to see laboratory work as something other than an activity that produces definitive answers to narrowly-defined questions.
Visit Nicole C. Nelson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue