Scientists are often unaware of their own biases, and I am no exception. I have never been keen on animal experiments even for drug development. The ethics don’t trouble me too much. If an experiment on an animal can prevent suffering in lots of humans I am all in favour of it. It is the ‘if’ bit that bothers me. I am not at all convinced that using animals is often the best way to get the information you need.
I have some arguments which would probably not greatly interest people who don’t do experiments for a living. But there is one argument that has been staring me in the face that I had never noticed until P.Z.Meyers brought it up on his marvellous blog Pharyngula.
Most animal tests are done on male animals. Male rats are the species of choice, and must represent a huge proportion of the published data. Why are males used? Because they don’t have a menstrual cycle they are less variable, and in experiments variability is a bad thing.
It certainly sounds reasonable, and it never crossed my mind to challenge it. But in fact, in many species males are more variable than females. This is certainly true of humans. And it turns out that it is true of rodents as well. So in fact the exclusion of females from experimental designs is nothing more than a prejudice.
So the good news is that this bias is now being recognised and female animals are now being recognised as valid test subjects. This may not be exactly what feminists have in mind when they talk about reducing gender inequality, but a step towards reality and away from prejudice is always good.