Pop Quiz!

Take out a piece of paper and a sharpened #2 pencil.

Please read carefully the following story and answer all the questions.

You have 15 min.

One Saturday morning Dr. X was walking her dog thinking about some recent results in her field when it dawned on her that she might actually have the key to explaining all those findings.  If she was correct, she could go on to develop a new therapy for a terrible disease.

Being a scientist, Dr. X rapidly turned that idea into a specific hypothesis with testable predictions.  She ran back to her laboratory, gathered her students, told them the idea, and got to work.  They were excited when their first test (T1) yielded a positive result.  This simply meant that the implications of her hypothesis were corroborated by the experiment.  Good job everyone!

The next day her students were up all night running the second test (T2).  Dr. X arrived at the laboratory after dropping her kids in school to find very tired students, but with big smiles on their faces.  The second test, she correctly guessed, gave them another positive result.  Hurrah!

That night, at the dinner table, she shared the excitement with her family. Even the dog appeared to notice something important was going on. Next morning, one of her postdoctoral students came up with, what appeared to be, a direct test of the central idea.  It was agreed at the Lab meeting that this would be the next experiment (T3).

It was a difficult experiment.  Dr. X’s husband agreed to pick up the kids instead and let her finish her work.  Close to midnight the results came in.  Everyone in the lab ran to see the results.   They stared at each other in disappointment.  The result was clearly negative — what this meant is that the outcome contradicted a key prediction of the hypothesis.

Dr. X’s Lab had a difficult month.  They went over the data over and over again — nothing was obviously wrong; but they decided not to give up.  Instead, they brainstormed about how they could come up with a new hypothesis that may explain the data they had collected so far.  And yes, Dr. X explained, this must include a reason for the outcome of the negative experiment as well.

One night, Dr. X was awoken by the sound of the phone. She was startled, it was unusual that anyone would call at 3 am to her home. Understandably, Dr. X answered the phone with some apprehension.  She was relieved to hear one of her students, which after calming himself down and apologizing for the time, described to her a new idea that, he said, came to him out of nowhere in the middle of his sleep.  She grumbles, but listened…  her sleepy eyes slowly widening as the student went on.  When he was done Dr. X immediately knew that there was no doubt her student could explain the diverse findings.

Everyone gathered in the laboratory next morning and started to test again based on the new concept over the week.  T4… positive!  T5….positive!  T6… negative…  Negative?!  Oh no…  Again?!

Yes, again.  But Dr. X gathered her students and explain to them that this is how science works.  New ideas emerge from old ones in an effort to account for all the data their community gathered so far.  And that negative findings were important for science too. They all felt a bit better as they went home… just a little bit.  But more than Dr. X’s words, it was a group feeling that they were getting closer to the truth.

It took her Lab a few more iterations of this difficult game called science, but one day they knew they had nailed it.  They had a new idea that not only explained all past results but stood many additional tests, including replications by her colleagues.  Their work delivered a medical breakthrough that allowed them to develop a new medical treatment that saved uncountable human lives.


Assume that in this story, from beginning to end, including her experiments those of her colleagues, scientists performed 20 experimental tests that yielded positive results, 15 experimental tests that yielded negative results, and that each test required the use of exactly one mouse.

Q1. How many mice were scientifically necessary to develop this medical breakthrough?

Q2. Which experimental tests were more important in developing this breakthrough?  The tests yielding positive results or the ones yielding negative results?  Explain.

Q3. Given the end result was that uncountable human lives are being saved.  Which test was morally justifiable and which was not?  Were positive tests in any way more justifiable than negative ones?  Were experiments used in replicating Dr. X’s findings necessary and justified?  Or is it only the final experiment directly preceding the development of the new therapy that was justified?

Q4. Five years after her discovery, and with the new knowledge acquired, one of Dr. X’s colleagues comments that it was obvious some of the ideas she had tried could not have worked.  With 20/20 vision, Dr. X agrees.  Does her admission mean the experiments testing those ideas were scientifically unnecessary or ethically indefensible?

Submit your answers in the comments section below!

14 responses to “Pop Quiz!

  1. Pingback: Speaking of 2012: A year in Summary | Speaking of Research

  2. Pingback: Lori Gruen on the Ethical Justification of Animal Research Experiments | Speaking of Research

  3. I must say, as a good deal as I enjoyed reading what you had to say, I couldnt help but lose interest following a although. Its as should you had a fantastic grasp on the topic matter.

  4. Oops. Misread the date on that article: from 2007, actually.

  5. Nature recently ran an interesting article on the ethics of animal research:


  6. Why are we not given information on what happened to the mice? They were “used,” but were they “used up” (i.e., killed), harmed, hurt, or damaged in any way? Much research involving nonhuman animals does not damage the animals involved. We can and do learn much from animals without causing damage, pain, or even distress. And, in most cases, scientists seriously consider, and are required to consider, minimizing pain and distress. An idealogy that claims that keeping animals in captivity is immoral and that nothing of value can be learned from captive animals is not going to approve of laboratory animal research, maintaining animals in zoological gardens, agricultural use of animals, and probably not even the keeping of companion animals. Sadly, too much of the sane animal welfare movement has been co-opted by people and organizations for whom there is no acceptable level of care or housing for animals. Except, of course, removing animals from regulated and accredited biomedical settings to “sanctuaries” that are largely unregulated and are not subject to the standards of the federal Animal Welfare Regulations. There are some good sanctuaries out there, but there are also many that are not so good and are not fiscally sustainable–and do not have adequate health care.

  7. Thanks for the gj, Dario.

    I have thought about the questions over the past few days. So even if I failed to answer one section, I think the quiz was useful in that it made me think and consider my own views about the research process.

    I think the research finds its justification in the fact that uncountable human lives were saved. The general moral consensus of society is (I would assert) that it is preferable to do basic, preliminary research of this sort on animals such as mice, particularly when the research might cause unacceptable levels of harm to a human.

    • Of course, the research cannot possibly be justified on human lives saved alone. Otherwise, one would justify killing one human to use his/her organs to alleviate the suffering and lives of perhaps 6-7 other humans. But we do not think such action is morally right. Utilitarianism is part of the story, but not the whole story.

  8. Paul Jablonka

    First one has a conjecture. Then if it does not contradict the archves, it can be called a proper hypothesis. Archived results not used to formulate the conjecture can be used as experiment results and proof even though they were done ages ago. This situation can suffice for engineering proof where real resources might be risked. The form of science in the story is special for doging the job and parasiting at the public trough. Neuroscientists have had no ideas and proved none wrong in over 30 years.

    • Yes, one has a conjecture that has to be consistent with known facts to become a hypothesis. Such evaluations are part of a normal process where panels meet to decide on the scientific merit of proposals.

      As for your last two ignorant statements, perhaps you should look up some of the following names — Sakmann, Gilman, Carlsson, Greengard, Kandel, Mansfield, MacKinnon, Buck, Axel, Tsien, and I am sure I am missing others. And yes, these are all from contributions in the last 30 years.

  9. My answers, for whatever they are worth:

    Q1: 15 mice

    Q2: I would like to say both equally, but if I must choose one or the other, I will say the ones giving the negative results were the most important. The negative results showed modifications were necessary to the initial hypothesis; the positive results may have misled the researchers into reaching an incorrect or partially incorrect conclusion.

    Q3: Research is precisely that: research, scientific testing of hypotheses. If the outcome were already known, it would not be necessary to test those hypotheses. Morality is a very subjective topic. To give a more complete answer to the questions in this section would require more than 15 minutes.

    Q4: No, her admission merely indicates that her understanding of that topic has advanced.