Of mice and men!

Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

Our smart researchers have long been in the habit of subjecting poor hapless mice to odd experiments that require them (the mice that is) to find their way out of mazes, all in order for the researchers to arrive at certain unspecified conclusions. As a result of some of these experiments, unwarranted inferences have been drawn as regards the intelligence quotients of various categories of the rodents in question. These quotients, one learns from usually reliable sources, are then superimposed on data relating to humans to arrive at conclusions such as only scientific researchers are prone to jump to.
If the aforementioned leaves the gentle reader in a somewhat confused state of mind, one would be hardly surprised since one confesses one finds oneself in a similar predicament. Life, in addition to being short, is also awfully complicated as it is. If one makes an attempt to over-simplify matters it can only lead to further complications. And that is exactly what happens when a layman tries to unravel the intricacies of scientific and/or technological research. The temptation to do so, though, is at times irresistible. Whenever one comes across an item in the media relating to one of these scientific research studies, one can barely resist the temptation of poking one’s finger in the pie. Not that it helps in the least.
One’s attention was attracted by a rather intriguing article (from the archives) by a Julie Charles published in the International Herald Tribune (circa August, 2001). The said article was entitled, somewhat intriguingly: “In a Virtual Maze, Men Make Smarter Mice”. The text of the article apart, the ‘virtual’ message that men are capable of being better mice even in a virtual maze is, in a way, reassuring.
If one were to delve a bit deeper into the matter, one would discover that the researchers in question, drawing a line of distinction between the real world and what they lovingly refer to as the ‘virtual world’ were actually concerned about gender difference. According to the aforementioned piece, “When moving around in the real world, men and women use different strategies to get to the same place…but in the virtual world, subtle differences in special abilities are magnified and men tend to perform better than women do in navigating computer generated spaces”. To get rid of any miscomprehension, it must be clarified that this weighty conclusion is based on the findings presented at the American Psychological Society’s convention in Toronto in June 2001, no less.
It would appear that a Earl Hunt, professor of psychology at the University of Washington at Seattle, who conducted a series of experiments on subjects in ‘virtual environments’, found that, on average, men traveled 20% further in the maze than the women did. Other researchers, though, have found that in the real world the situation is quite different; in fact reversed.
To take an instance, Diane Halpern, a psychology professor at California State University in San Bernardino, had a quite different viewpoint on the subject. She stated, “If we look at how people navigate in the real world, many studies have shown that girls and women tend to use landmarks, whereas the boys and men tend to use bearings, such as North and South. They both get there. But in a virtual environment, suddenly you have lost your landmarks”.
If, as appears highly likely, the reader has emerged from the above text with a boggled mind, he or she has every right to feel cheated. Proceeding along these lines, one cannot help having the feeling that these research studies – that now appear to be sprouting like wild mushrooms in the rainy season – should be put on a leash; if for no other reason, then at least for the sake of sanity of those readers who happen to be on the receiving end of such theses.
It is all very well for the scholars to spend a few millions donated by busybodies to satisfy their respective curiosities; but to what end, it may be asked? To be fair, however, some of these studies do turn out to be very useful in scientific research in the long run. Would it not be justified, though, for a layman to express the opinion that most of this money spent on ‘virtual’ research could perhaps be better utilized? But, then, it can be argued, what gives the layman the right to butt in where angels fear to tread, as they say?
It is quite common of late to be informed by the media of the results of certain experiments carried out on mice. As a result of these experiments a gullible populace is informed about the healing properties of new-fangled drugs, with the promise that from mice to men is one small step. Despite all the rigmarole about the similarities between the molecular structures of mice and men, one still has a queasy feeling about the efficacy of such drugs when applied to humans. Still one owes a debt of gratitude to all these millions of mice who go through the agony and the ultimate sacrifice in the interest of medical research. What would the wretched researchers do without them? Not that man is known for showing kindness to other species or even to his own kind.Changing gear a bit, there is, of course, the case of the computer mouse to which secretaries in the developed world are so closely attached. Makes one wonder why the contraption was designed in the shape of a mouse and also why it was given this particular name. Maybe, considering the propensity of the western female of the species to be terrified of mice, this computer device was intended as a step towards getting rid of the mouse-phobia of the otherwise formidable western female. Bill Gates, of Windows fame, may well have had prior consultation with a gifted psychologist on this score. If he hadn’t, should he not have? One leaves this (profound?) thought with the gentle reader.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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