RetroPost: The Science of Violence in Mice and Men

In RetroPost, we feature a post from at least one year ago (ancient in pop culture time). The posts are featured because they have some relevance to current happenings, because they are timeless in nature and speak to a relevant issue, or because we plan on providing a follow-up in an upcoming post.

This Week: The scientists are at it again, releasing studies this time about the dangers of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. We’ve covered before the benefits and dangers of such services, but we thought that today we’d reprint Alan Noble’s attempt to warn us of the dangers of scientific studies.

A few days ago a news article ran on the front page of Yahoo which reported on a recent scientific study. The research claims to show that mice – and by extension humans – naturally take pleasure in violence. Researchers taught a mouse to press a button if he wanted another male mouse to be released into his cage. They found that the mouse would consistently call for the intruder and then fight him, suggesting that the violence is viewed as a reward. The conclusion that is drawn is that humans, whose brains are “analogous” to the brains of mice, are built to crave violence like they crave sex. A desire for violence is a natural, although no longer “beneficial” aspect of our physiological make-up.

There are a few observations I’d like to make about this news report and the study it was based on.

First, I am deeply concerned about the way news outlets report scientific studies. While I continue to havesome measure of faith in the objectivity of the scientific method, I have little or no faith in the objectivity of the media. It is in the media’s best interest to report scientific stories which are sensational and/or appeal to our most base desires. Because of the nature of scientific research, and the population’s general ignorance of it, the media has many studies from various journals to choose from in order to cater to their audience’s tastes. There is almost always some study released somewhere which can be reported on to improve readership, but only if the reporter is willing to ignore the very nature of research.

No research is done in a vacuum or considered exhaustively conclusive. When a study is published other researchers might try to duplicate the experiment to test its veracity, alternative hypotheses are tested, and the original study is often modified to adjust to new information. All studies are tentative in this way, especially when they have just been released and do not have the benefit of extensive academic scrutiny. When the media reports on a study, however, there is rarely any indication that there might be disagreement within the scientific community. Research is presented with the illusion of unanimous agreement. The effect of such irresponsible reporting is that the understanding readers’ have of the world and their own lives can be significantly altered.

This article on violence in mice is an example of reporting a tentative (although promising) study as if it was conclusive. Note the use of language and the relative lack of qualifiers, “might, seem, could, suggest, perhaps, etc…” Also notice that there is no indication that the research has been contested or challenged. For all we know, the research has conclusively shown that a desire for violence is natural. Many readers might have understood the article like this: “Scientists have determined that it is natural for humans to desire violence,” when they should have read, “One study has shown that a particular mouse has been taught to push a button if he wants to fight. Since the mouse chose to fight a lot and since there is some connection to fighting and the reward center of his brain, it seems to mean that mice find violence rewarding, and if the human mind is similar enough to the mind of a mouse, this might mean that humans also find violence rewarding due to their physiological make-up, but further research is still needed.”

The second observation I would like to make is that a misunderstanding of the importance and validity of this study could lead some readers to condone violence, or at least violent entertainment. I don’t mean this observation to sound alarmist, but I do want to point out that such articles do have an impact on the way people view the world. If the reader (erroneously) believes that taking pleasure in violence is a part of our natural, physiological make-up, how can we harshly judge violent criminals? Is acting out a natural impulse wrong? As believers we can say that man is made in the image of God and therefore to harm a human, unless it is necessary to protect others, is unjust. Although it might be “natural” for our flesh to desire violence, it is not morally just for us to be violent.

Potentially, this kind of thinking could be used by some to justify and condone violent entertainment which is degrading to our humanity (our “man-ishness” as Schaeffer called it), much in the same way vile and inhumane pornography is increasingly viewed as a “healthy” outlet for a natural impulse. Interestingly enough, the article anticipates the possible moral implications of this study.

My third observation is that the article ends with an evocation of utilitarianism:

“Even though it served a purpose for other animals, in modern human societies. . .a propensity toward aggression is not beneficial and can be a problem.” -Study team member Craig Kennedy, professor of special education and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

“Benefit,” particularly when it is spoken by a respected researcher, appears to resolve any moral problems we might have with treating a desire for violence as natural, but the word lacks any meaningful explanatory force: Benefits who? How? How do we know it benefits them? According to what scale? The fundamental problem of utilitarianism is that “benefit” is always arbitrarily defined–a fact we should not allow ourselves or others to shrink from, even when they are respected scientists. We are not released from the moral implications of this study with the mere mention of “benefit” without any reference to who will benefit and how such benefit could be defined. The question remains: if it is a part of our physiology to desire violence as we desire sex, how can we harshly punish those who are violent and how can we censor any violent entertainment outside of a biblical belief in the image-of-God-ness of man?

By pointing out that a study will cause people to wrestle with difficult moral problems I am in no way suggesting that the scientific research is flawed or wrong; I merely hope to point out that the ethical solution which is presented in the article (”benefit”) is not a solution at all, but instead opens a door to many other problems which are no less difficult to resolve.

Ultimately, the burden of guilt falls on the media for distorting and misrepresenting both particular research and the scientific method as a whole. Practically however, it is our obligation as believers to be discerning. It is important that we seek to have a proper understanding of science and its processes–one that is neither overly suspicious nor blindly trusting. In addition, we should act in such a way as to support and allude to man’s made-in-the-image-of-God-ness, which in this case means rejecting the idea that violence is justified because of a natural physiological desire. Finally, we must be vigilant to guard against and identify linguistic slight-of-hand. The use of ethical and moral terminology, like “benefit,” does not mean that these terms have any explanatory power or definition.

It should be no surprise to us that humans desire to shed blood (ref. the Fall), but I would like to suggest that another “natural” tendency is revealed in this article: the willingness to mislead for profit.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    That study sounds ridiculous. Human brains, psychology and relationships are far more advanced and complex than mice.

    Mice rely on other sensors such as smell and are probably more territorial than a human in the same circumstances.

    So what happens if we put two humans in unfamiliar surroundings and put a button to open the door between them.

    I’m no scientist but my guess is they would press the button, greet each other and wonder what they are doing or how they got there.

    In fact we do have this experiment happening everywhere – it’s called a doorbell and rarely results in a fight.

    So what does that tell us? Mice have similar brains to humans so they are equally as likely to invite each other in for a cup of tea?

    Lex Fears last blog post..[Whodunnit] Killing In The Name Of…

  • http://www.aaronhall.com/ Minnesota Attorney

    It is unfortunate how the media’s attempt to transform science into entertainment often presents an unclear and inaccurate representation of the actual scientific information.

    Minnesota Attorneys last blog post..Minnesota Dog Bite Law

  • Julie Ooms

    In defense of the media–or perhaps to its further detriment–I think I need to clarify how studies like these make it into the news, and in what format. I’ve worked as producer at a smallish TV news network in South Dakota (KELO), and all of our non-local news–including medical studies–came to us via A/P (Associated Press) wires. Basically, my task every morning was to comb the wires looking for “interesting” material to put on the show. Thing is, the wires were already second-hand accounts: any reports on new medical studies had already been read and written up by a (usually less-than-wonderfully-talented) A/P writer. By the time we got the story, it had already been spun.
    Of course, that’s true of most news stories–not only those on medical studies.

  • Alan Noble

    Julie,

    In retrospect, the media’s distortion of studies has more causes than I originally suggested. I suppose it says just as much about our cultural understanding of “science” and what it can tell us about the world as it does the media’s ability to promote science as such.

    It is interesting that you point to A/P writers as the source of these misrepresentations, but I don’t suppose that gets us beyond the fact that the media (which includes the Associated Press) often misrepresents both the particulars of scientific studies and the significance of science as a whole.

    -alan


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