The scientists developing rat telepathy have an aim. They want to answer the question: Can mammal brains be trained to communicate with each other electrically? Research shows that it can work in rats, at least. Much remains to be seen: Will it work in other mammals? In humans? For now, the electrical communication is one-way; is ‘telepathic’ repartee possible? Is it possible for different species to communicate effectively brain-to-brain?
We know from other research that some mammal brains can control machines designed for that purpose. But what about feedback – sensory information simulating touch transmitted from prosthetic to brain, for example? Current science seems to indicate it’s possible. It’s certainly an easy leap to make in fiction, but any scientist worth her weight in pipettes will tell you that it’s usually a few orders of magnitude harder to manage in real life.
Navigating the administrative and regulatory obstacle courses between the lab bench and the clinic alone is costly in terms of time and money, yes, but it also takes a toll on the heart. The business of science is hard on people. It consumes researchers in much the same way biologists burn through reagents, and at metaphorically the same rate. It’s dimensions harder for scientists who experiment on animals. Not only are the mountains of paperwork piled higher and the pitfalls dug deeper, the researchers are human. Animal lovers and vegans among their number.
How can anyone tolerate animal testing? For that matter, how can anyone eat meat? It’s all down to our capacity for cognitive dissonance. Hypocrites! Idealists!
It’s complicated. It’s hard and it should be. We should be suspicious of over-simplification, even in our own fiction. We should look close, listen carefully, and imagine with depth. In our writing, we should resist the ‘mad scientist’ trope. For a fun change of pace, avoid pursuing plot devices to their logical extremes. Instead of painting science as the villain, how about shining a light on the tensions that emerge when budget constraints – sequestration, anyone? – force post-docs to compete with their mentors for increasingly limited federal funds? Why not examine the consequences of alowing basic science to languish while throwing money at the few headline-making scientists so adroit at standing on giant shoulders that they achieve celebrity status? What happens to a civilization after a generation of quiet giants is lost?
And what of the tender-hearted scientist? She’s no fool. She would never release lab animals into the wild. Instead, her data is better because she stacks the deck in favor of her furry subjects. They have the best care possible under the circumstances, and it shows in how well her test results stand up to peer review. Her work informs others’ and ultimately, the care provided in her vivarium becomes one high standard to which others’ are upheld. She is loved and hated. As can happen to any normal person, she becomes known in certain circles for something other than what she intended. It’s a pain, but one she knows she’s lucky to have. Her social media presence is trolled by animal rights protesters and zealous novelists alike. In the end, she’s offered few choices: Embrace celebrity or obscurity. Chase research dollars or abide by evidence-based principles… What’s a tender-hearted scientist to do?
There is room in any given story for both technological advancement and, oh, the humanity! We can navigate the inelegant intersection of rat telepathy and animal rights. Why don’t we? We could place blame with ignorant writers, lazy readers, or publishers who aim for the lowest common denominator, but the real answer is beautifully more complex. It encompasses everything from public funding for STEM education through social stigma for being unironically enthusiastic science nerds. It defies gender binaries and thumbs its nose at sterotypes. There is no overly simple answer.
So, let’s look beyond the obvious extrapolations from this most recent piece of sensational science news. Let there be nuance.