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Deconstructing the lab rat

How metaphors both reveal and conceal

Koen Beumer 18 January 2010

Caged: more in common than we think?

Why do we talk so easily about ‘lab rats’ when we talk about humans, while using the utmost care when talking about real laboratory rats?

Like most scientists, I always feel a bit uncomfortable when talking about laboratory rats. We all realize that these rats did not voluntarily enter the laboratory. The way we talk about them is telling: whether we call rats ‘raw data’ or ‘companions in research’ makes a difference to how we relate to them, and in the way we would, or rather should, treat them. So we are very careful when talking about real laboratory rats.

On the other hand, we call people working in the laboratory ‘lab rats’ all the time. Why do we talk so easily about ‘lab rats’ when we talk about humans, while using the utmost care when talking about real laboratory rats? Is the reason as self-evident as we assume?

The main difference between ‘lab rats’ and real laboratory rats is of course that when we designate scientists as ‘lab rats’ we use the term metaphorically. Of course we do not think that scientists are small white rodents with red eyes and a long tail; we simply use the term to refer to people working in laboratories who are just like laboratory rats in the way that they relate to their surroundings. When calling scientists by this nickname, we stress that they are so absorbed by their quest for truth that they sometimes become full-time inhabitants of the laboratory – just like rats that are experimented upon.

But metaphors are not all-encompassing. On the one hand, not all of the characteristics the scientist are covered by using the metaphor. When we refer to scientists as ‘lab rats’ we want to highlight the scientist’s persistent presence in the laboratory but not, for example, their tendencies to create incomprehensible models remote from practical solutions. Rats are not associated with this at all, so in that case one could better speak of monkey business.

On the other hand we do not think ‘lab rats’ possess all characteristics of real laboratory rats either. Not all meanings of rats are transferred to scientists. Just as the term does not mean that scientists have red eyes and a long tail, we also do not mean that scientists are involuntarily experimented upon, or that scientists are selectively bred in order to weed out genetic diversity. At a certain point the comparison stops.

And this is where it gets interesting for the laboratory rat as well, for if some of their characteristics are highlighted in using the metaphor, others are necessarily obscured. And this has an effect on the meaning of ‘rats in the laboratory’. By using ‘lab rats’ as a sobriquet to signal the dedication of scientists in the pursuit of knowledge, it underscores the fact that scientists are so dedicated that they would even go as far as to live like a laboratory rat. No attention is drawn either to the rats’ imprisonment nor their scary tail. And so laboratory rats emerge as a revered example, a role model in the pursuit of knowledge.

The uncomfortable feature of laboratory rats which makes us so shy to talk about them – the fact that they are in the laboratory involuntarily – is transformed into a positive sign of dedication! So even though we do not talk about the rats themselves, when calling scientists ‘lab rats’ we give the laboratory rat its due credit. For who can deny that in the case of laboratory science, the greatest sacrifice is made by those about whom we prefer not to speak?

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