IN MICE, explained

The serious intent behind a wilfully dumb idea

Apr 16 · 8 min read

The not-so-serious bit

I have two cups of coffee every morning.

Every. Morning. I had two cups of coffee while I wrote this.

If I wake up in a field on fire during the apocalypse, after I put my legs out, the very next thing I’m doing is robbing an abandoned cafe, like some kind of demented Dale Cooper/Mad Max crossover. Two cups please, zombie server.

The first cup is usually reserved for chiselling my eyes open, and getting some emotional distance from the regular dreams of fire, death, and fear.

The second is for wrenching myself back into full consciousness, re-assuming the weight of the constant mindless yammering of my inbox like a crap digital Atlas, and remembering how to talk to Americans without getting judged.

Any idea I’ve had before the first cup is probably something truly ridiculous, like a rescue home for weasels, or a shop that only sells purple things.

But Friday last, before the first cup, I thought, bugger it, I’ll start a funny Twitter account:

https://twitter.com/justsaysinmice

The concept is simple — a lot of science news reporting (which I distinguish from science journalism) is framed badly. Many elements of it grind my gears, and the worst amongst them is:

Reporting preliminary animal research out of context.

Often the easiest way to fix it is appending a simple suffix: IN MICE.

GUT BACTERIA INFLUENCES OBESITY… IN MICE
LOW FAT BACON WORSE THAN REGULAR BACON … IN MICE
NEW ALZHEIMER’S DRUG NO BETTER THAN REGULAR DRUG… IN MICE

There, fixed.

Of course, it could be “in cell lines” or “in guinea pigs” or “in Drosophila” or “in white boys wearing boat shoes at a college in the midwest”, but — it’s usually mice. So many stories about the Latest Thing That You Need To Know About What Will Kill You Next Tuesday can have their accuracy dramatically improved by the simple addition of IN MICE.

And yes, I made those examples up, but there’s no shortage of real ones.

Go to any newspaper where journalists are re-treading press releases and turning them into copy (i.e. lots of them) and you can make your own. Anyone can play.

I should note at this point that saying IN MICE after reading a headline is a reasonably common trope amongst scientists. I’m certain I didn’t invent it. I’m just the goon who thought it would be a funny Twitter account before he’d had any coffee.

Yes, the profile picture is a rat, and yes, that kind of thing is amusing to me. I thought I would get weeks of satisfaction out of that one before someone noticed. Of course, I had my ruined my fun completely, as it lasted about 8 hours, and someone has pointed it out every ninety minutes since.

Thanks, Internet.

And I’m not changing it, because God, isn’t she cute.

The reason for that immediate fact-checking ruining my rodent Easter Egg was simple: a lot more people saw this than I had imagined. A *lot* more. I thought maybe two hundred of my nerdier friends in sci-comm with a liberal salting of wet lab biologists would follow the account, and we’d all have a good laugh. I’m not some New Media gonk with a pertinent angle on Engagement, I’m just a regular person with a deeply cultivated silly side.

But, Twitter doesn’t care about my plans.

24 hours later, there were 1700 followers.

48 hours later, 15K.

Now, it’s been exactly four whole days, and we seem to be cresting at 40K.

Maybe in a global sense that isn’t very many people, but it seems like a lot for an account with a handful of tweets where all I do is yell IN MICE.

I totally agree. That’s kind of the point.

I don’t expect people to read my 15K word, six-part exegesis on establishing error detection methods in nutritional research or my diatribes about scientific integrity, which are hopefully not lame, and definitely not lazy.

I mean, other scientists read them, and in that sense they’re mildly popular.

But I expect non-scientists (i.e. more or less everyone) to read light-hearted, predictable things, to which I would add: remember the counterpart to lame and lazy is accessible.

If I’d called the account “handling the translational gap during the science-media transition” — which is pretty accurate, if you know what the words mean — it would be as popular as cabbage sandwiches.

Finally, please remember it’s supposed to be fun. If that’s an emotion that you only dimly remember from your sunlit childhood, please remember that other people exist, and sometimes they find things fun.

The serious bit

I think reporting on scientific research accurately, especially when it’s about health and medical science, is important. It often means telling people crucial, scary, or important things from a position of authority.

So, I don’t think you should wait until the third paragraph before mentioning that the research on your diet, or the tumour that’s going to kill you, or the Latest New Threat, is mouse research. Or worse, not mention it at all.

The difference is crucial, because usually it means we’re talking about upgrading a piece of research from the pre-clinical research stage to the clinical trial stage.

What are those? Glad you asked.

Pre-clinical research is, roughly speaking, about nifty biological mechanisms or pathways which might have the potential to one day develop therapeutics. It establishes previously fundamental knowledge which we hope will later be useful.

(Note: its future utility is occasionally questionable.)

A clinical trial (in this case, a Phase 3 clinical trial) is a test of efficacy, effectiveness, safety and side-effects in real actual people. In the case of drugs, a Phase 3 is the last regulatory step before applying for human use approval. If your drug, therapy, etc. works, and it has an acceptable clinical profile, you’ll be able to buy it in a few years. If it’s a new treatment for a condition you suffer from, it might change your life.

And forgetting your IN MICE is often equivalent to conflating the two.

Which isn’t ideal, because pre-clinical research is a billion dollars and a decade short of becoming a drug… if it ever makes it that far, which is unlikely.

Reporting pre-clinical research as something that’s directly relevant to people in the here and now is like pointing at a pile of two-by-fours and a bag of tenpenny nails and calling it a cottage.

This is science. If you want to report it, you can goddamn jolly well play by our rules, because details like that matter. Give the right context.

I’m well aware that some of the IN MICE articles go on to explain something, somewhere, about mice. But the headline and the lede in particular are the parts that people read. That’s the part you really have to get right.

I’m also well aware that modern journalism is horribly difficult, and that the people writing these stories are in a fearsome hurry. I know they are reporting on a topic in which they are not a domain expert (and don’t have enough time to find an expert sufficient to explain the finer details). I know journalists don’t write their own headlines, and it’s the responsibility of some editor who receives narky emails from The Management about monthly engagement metrics if they aren’t sparkly enough.

But I am perfectly prepared to judge your outlet, out loud and in public, if you say ‘patients’ when you mean ‘genetically modified mice’, likewise ‘women’ or ‘men’, likewise when you say ‘cancer’ (as if that was a single condition anyway) when you mean ‘cancer in a specific mouse model’, likewise when you say ‘obesity’ when you mean ‘fat mice’.

Perhaps this is a minor sin when large chunks of humanity in general seem perfectly willing to throw offal in the well of human progress for twenty seconds of attention, but it’s the only sin I’m personally equipped to deal with, so here we are.

Additional: I don’t like the drip, drip, drip of false promises and over-inflated claims we see everywhere in human progress. Everything is loud and immediate and transformative and unique and fascinating. The whole world has a dose of One Weird Trick, and is entirely submerged in Lake Wobegone.

In particular, when it comes to reporting on science, I feel like this attitude is slowly, imperceptibly, contributing to an erosion of trust, because we’re continually betraying what’s we’ve done and what’s possible to do.

“I’ve seen cancer cured so many times, so where’s all the machines and drugs?” he said, angrily, as his wife gradually got weaker on the bed behind him.

Little by little, over-inflated results and breathless breakthroughs betray trust. They throwing dimes in a wishing well which people rapidly start to expect will never pay compound interest.

Then, when one of those people is elected to parliament, or Congress, and start to cut the budget for the National Science Foundation, or declares that All Research Should Be In The National Interest (whatever that is), I wonder how much we reap what we have sown.

Or, we can not do that.

We can push back against false narratives, and try to explain scientific endeavour in a way that’s accurate and realistic. Pre-clinical research and foundational biology is interesting all by itself. You don’t need to pretend it will Blast Your Belly Fat By The Power Of Keto.

You absolutely can get to grips with the real meat of scientific progress and explain it in a way non-scientists will find valuable. A thousand thousand people working in science communication/journalism are already doing so. Some of them do it phenomenally well.

So, let’s help them. One mouse at a time.

Whatsernames:

My personal Twitter (it has short science-yelling)

My Medium page (it has long science-yelling)

Postscript:

What it ain’t: a thinly veiled attack on mouse research.

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with mouse research, which is ubiquitous and normal, and the researchers who do it — probably without exception — all understand far better than I do just how goddamn hard it is to make a definitive statement about therapeutic potential from an animal model (or even between animal models). Which is why most research papers like that don’t try to.

They may overstretch a bit, but that version of overstretching is more like “this may be a promising avenue for further research” rather than “Zidovudine will cure your HIV, then do your shopping and cut your lawn all by itself.”

You’re actually short-changing these researchers by making blanket statements about their work that they’d never agree was accurate. You miss what’s really important whatever result or model they’re working on. Maybe there’s a technical or theoretical element that they’ve cracked. Maybe the experiment is just something that no-one thought to do before.

If I’m criticizing anyone directly besides amusing myself, it’s editors, sub-editors, and copy editors. If that’s you, please represent our work correctly.

Again: please remember it’s silly, and don’t pretend “IN MICE” is a brutal attack on the foundations of scientific endeavour.

James Heathers

Written by

I write about science. We can probably be friends.

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