This May Be One of the Most Important Rat Studies. Here's Why You've Never Heard of It.
In 1974, Richard Feynman delivered the commencement address at CalTech. With his typical aplomb and flamboyant hand gestures, the Nobel Prize winning physicist shared his thoughts on science, pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself.
Feynman discussed much in his speech, touching on topics from massage to social science. One could say he rambled a bit, but even the most ardent critic couldn't deny that Feynman's babbling was thought provoking. He always had a knack for making even the most mundane somehow meaningful.
Towards the end of his remarks, Feynman spoke on a topic still relevant today: the need for rigor in scientific research. His primary concern was that scientists were ignoring the integrity of their methods in favor of attaining publishable, flashy results. Publication bias was also on his mind. He worried that excellent papers were going unnoticed, or worse, unpublished, simply because their results weren't instantly attention-grabbing. To support his claim, Feynman referenced a little-known rat study conducted in 1937 by a man he referred to as "Mr. Young."
Back then, many psychologists considered the humble lab rat to be the gold standard for psychological research. Psychologist James B. Watson even suggested that you could learn everything you might want to know about human psychology by dropping a rat into a maze. Today, most experts agree that psychology experiments conducted on humans can't even tell us everything we might want to know about the human psyche!
Feynman described Young's experiment as such:
"He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off."
But Young ran into a problem. Each time, the rats would simply go to the door where the food was previously.
"The question was," Feynman continued, "how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before?"
Young set about eliminating all the possible variables that would clue the rats in to their position in the alley, so that they'd have to rely purely on relational information.
"So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell."
Young finally discovered that the rats could discern the previous door by the way the floor sounded as they ran over it! So he filled the corridor with sand, and was finally able to teach the rats to go to the third door down from their starting location.
You might think this was a pretty cool discovery, and that Young's methods were worthy of replication in any future rat-running experiment with similar aims. But Feynman was dismayed to find that the study was relatively forgotten. In fact, it may have never even been published.
Was this due to publication bias? Limited information exists to the precise identity of Mr. Young, though it's likely that Feynman was referring to animal scientist Paul Thomas Young. Young, did, in fact, work with rats, but no study as Feynman describes is listed in his published works. So we'll have to take Feynman's word that the study was indeed conducted. If so, the rat-running psychologists of old never heeded Young's methods.
"I looked up the subsequent history of this research," Feynman said in his address. "The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn't discover anything about the rats."
But what Young discovered, according to Feynman was infinitely more vital.
"In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats."
Proper science is not simply about attaining a result; it's about uncovering truth. Today, when almost 90% of results from preclinical cancer trials can't be replicated, and psychology is plagued in a similar fashion, it's clear that this has been at least partially forgotten. Though scientists may be tempted by a flashy finding, rigorous methods should always take precedence.