Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Slipping Mickey a Mickey

Recently, researchers at Temple University set out to debunk the myth that coffee will you sober up. (I didn't think anyone actually believed this in the first place, but then again, I'm not a researcher with grant money burning a hole in my lab coat.)

Now, they could have started by consulting the literature on the properties and effects of alcohol and caffeine (or they could have consulted Charlie Sheen), but instead they did what scientists love to do: they got a bunch of mice and got them drunk and/or jittery.

According to the story in USA Today, which quotes a BBC report, which quotes from the study that was published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience:

...mice given varying doses of alcohol and caffeine had to navigate a maze so as to avoid unpleasant stimuli, such as bright lights and loud noises.
The mice that got only alcohol seemed relaxed, but failed miserably, while those given only caffeine appeared more alert and fared better, although seemed to be uptight.
But mice that consumed both alcohol and caffeine -- up to a human equivalent of eight cups of coffee -- appeared to be relatively alert and relaxed, but were still incompetent at avoiding nasty stimuli, the BBC says.

Presumably, the latter group of mice also started calling their ex-girlfriends at two in the morning. But my question here is, should it not be "the mice who..."? Although many reputable sources contend that that and who can be used interchangeably, most careful writers and speakers use "who" to refer to people and "that" to refer to things. So what about animals? Well, I think a lot of people would concur with Grammar Girl, who wrote: "I would never refer to my dog as anything less than who, but my fish could probably be a that."

In other words, there is no firm rule here. But I think if you're going to use mice as stand-ins for humans, the least you can do is give them the dignity of a who. Especially if you're buying them drinks.