Science told: hands off gay sheep – updated

January 29th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, scare stories, times, very basic science | 51 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday January 13, 2007
The Guardian

“Science told: hands off gay sheep.” It’s hard to think of a headline more joyous than this classic from the Sunday Times. Apparently a scientist called Professor Charles Roselli is conducting cruel and gruesome experiments on sheep in the name of eradicating homosexuality. Unfortunately this “news” story, co-written by Isabelle Oakeshott – the Deputy Political Editor no less – is little more than dystopian science fiction fantasy, conjured up to drive a pressure group’s agenda.

We’ll open with their big hitter. “The animals’ skulls are cut open and electronic sensors are attached to their brains.” It sounds gruesome. But this was simply – and rather bizarrely – not true. There’s no neurophysiology in these experiments. They don’t even measure things from nerve cells: they measure mate preference, by watching the sheep choose a mate. Cilla Black does not open up Blind Date contestants’ skulls to attach electronic sensors to their brains (disappointingly in some respects) and they don’t do it in these experiments either. From this point, if you can believe that such a thing is possible, the Sunday Times then goes rapidly downhill.”By varying the hormone levels,” they continue, “mainly by injecting hormones into the brain [cough] they have had ‘considerable success’ in altering the rams’ sexuality, with some previously gay animals becoming attracted to ewes.” This is not just completely untrue, it is, in fact, the polar opposite of what the researchers really did. The only similar work completed and published by this team of researchers was about trying to make “straight” animals “gay” (although animal behaviour researchers avoid those terms) and in any case, that experiment was negative: it failed to achieve this aim. Go read the study if you don’t believe me (Endocrine. 2006 Jun;29(3):501-11).

I could go on for pages: even the details are wrong. “Initially, the publicly funded project aimed to improve the productivity of herds…” Wrong. “Michael Bailey, a neurology professor” Wrong. “The research is being peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists in America” wrong, “demonstrating that it is being taken seriously by the academic community.” Wrong. I contacted the lab to double check: nothing is currently under peer review, because nothing has been submitted for publication, because no current experiments are completed. There aren’t even any grants under review.

But most bizarre is the suggestion that the research was somehow ultimately about making gay people straight. This is stated and restated, even at the very top of the article: “Scientists are conducting experiments to change the sexuality of “gay” sheep in a programme that critics fear could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.”

For those of you at the Sunday Times with some catching up to do, here’s a news flash: we cleared up the question of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits over 100 years ago. If it helps, you could think about whether boob jobs will make future generations have larger breasts. And even if you could intervene to make a gay human straight – which only the Sunday Times and their friends are claiming here, not the researchers – then in any case, you might reasonably expect this to make any inherited tendency towards homosexuality more prevalent, rather than less.

And even then, the scientists have been very clear that this is a basic science study, from animal behaviour researchers, aimed at gaining an understanding of the biology of sexual attraction. They’ve been proactively clarifying that from the moment PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – started campaigning against them. Because that’s where this disinformation seems to have come from, in case you hadn’t guessed it yet. I’ll say this nicely – because we all know animal rights people can be scary – but almost all the misinformation and misunderstandings in this Times piece appeared first in a PETA campaign, clearly aimed at recruiting the political energy of the gay community to the animal rights cause. And it’s not even a very recent campaign: the the blogosphere has already run – 6 months ago – and then subsequently retracted PETA’s Roselli story.

There are serious ethical issues in science – including animal rights – and there are also interesting discussions to have about whether theoretical research into sexual behaviour makes us nervous. I’m not even going to start on them here, not just because I’m out of space, but because these are matters for us all, not just scientists or medics like me. It was a funny headline. But the biggest barrier to a sensible discussion of what we all think and feel about research ethics is inaccurate, ill-informed prejudice, slander, and disinformation.

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And by the way…

One thing I thought was pretty strange about the Times article was the way it was suggested that simply researching a biological basis of sexual preference was somehow an inherently iffy or even homophobic project to be involved in. This is particularly surprising given things like this:

Also, The Advocate, a US gay and lesbian newsmagazine, reported in 1996 that 61% of its readers believed that “it would mostly help gay and lesbian rights if homosexuality were found to be biologically determined”, and a cross-national study in the United States, the Philippines, and Sweden found that those who believed that “homosexuals are born that way” held significantly more positive attitudes toward homosexuality than those who believed that “homosexuals choose to be that way” and/or “learn to be that way”.

Ho hum.

Update 28/1/07:

The Sunday Times, 4 weeks later, has had the decency to express some kind of correction. They don’t quite ‘fess up to the spectacular extent of their fantasies but the stuff at the end, about how they should have got a science journo to look the story over, could have sprung from my own sweet mouth.

The Sunday Times January 28, 2007

The report “Science told: hands off gay sheep” (News, December 31) contained several inaccuracies in its description of research into the brain’s role in sheep’s sexual partner preference being conducted at Oregon Health & Science University and Oregon State University. The research is aimed at understanding the role of the brain in sexual attraction. The researchers deny that they were trying to “cure” homosexuality in sheep, a statement that is backed up by their published studies. The research included a study that limited androgen in sheep to determine if this resulted in same partner preference. Our report misconstrued this experiment. The researchers also stress that contrary to our report they have had no success in altering the sexual preference of the animals. The research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and is not being conducted to improve farm productivity. The authors of our report were not science specialists and we should have ensured that the story was checked by the science editor before publication. We apologise for the errors and any subsequent confusion.

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