A rat once beat me at five-card stud

It’s early in the morning, so I’m grumpy, and the commenting system at the London Review of Books blog isn’t working, so I’ll just post my comment here and hopefully they’ll see the trackback. I want to make a fairly general point anyway.

First off, the post is about a study that came out this week about rats gambling. Except, that’s not actually the point of the paper. All you have to do is read the introduction which says:

Here, we investigated the effects of agonists and antagonists at the D1, D2 [dopamine], and 5-HT1A [serotonin] receptors, as well as of d-amphetamine on [rat gambling] performance.

So it’s a study of the neuroreceptors and neuromodulators which regulate gambling performance and strategy. OK I think that’s a little more interesting than simply showing that rats gamble. As the author of the LRB post says, everyone knows that animals have to gamble in their daily lives. Then they go on to complain about the scientific method, I think:

But here’s the clever and the not so clever thing about science: unless all this risky living is taking place in a laboratory, it can’t be measured, and if it can’t be measured it’s just what they call, contemptuously, ‘folk psychology’. So they stick rats in a cage, give them four holes to poke into, and see if they go the ‘good’ route and choose sweeties in smaller quantities but more reliably, or the ‘bad’ route and choose less reliability in higher doses.

Wow! Someone sounds like they feel looked down upon by scientists. Here’s the deal. There’s plenty of science done in the wild. It’s called fieldwork, biologists everywhere do it. One of my friend goes out into the field to study the sexual behaviours of water striders – wacky. Anyway, in neuroscience we don’t tend to do that. That doesn’t mean that we assume everything that can’t be measured in the lab is ‘folk psychology’ though! It just means people spend a lot of time trying to think of good experiments to tease out what’s going on. ‘Folk psychology’ is generally reserved for those things that scientific knowledge says isn’t true.

They also seem offended by the fact that scientists are looking at gambling in rodents

Like patients with frontal lobe damage, says the Professor, the rats ‘just don’t learn from their experiences. They continue to choose from the “bad decks”.’ According to him the regular reward is the ‘optimal strategy’. Well, according to me and my frontal lobes, and the rats in his lab, we like lots and lots of sugar and we’re prepared to wait out a drought in order to get it. In the long run apparently we get less sugar, but that’s the Professor’s long run. Me and the rats like a little excitement in our lives. So sue us.

Why do scientists study such ‘obvious’ things? Why do we insist on reducing the exciting things in life to boring and dry concepts? Because the history of science – and psychological phenomenon in particular – is littered with the corpses of ‘obvious’ ideas that turned out to be completely wrong. Human behaviour is complicated, and animals don’t necessarily behave the same way. It would not be at all surprising, for instance, if we found that rats systematically underestimate the value of reward in some probabilistic paradigm where we don’t. That’s why we do the experiments. Please stop getting offended when we do.

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