Adventures in Ethics and Science

Lately it’s struck me that when I post on the issue of research with animals, many of the comments I get on those posts see the issue as a black and white one. Mind you, these commenters don’t always agree about whether it is the scientists or the animal rights activists who are on the side of the angels. However, many of them feel quite confident in asserting that all animal research is immoral, or that ideally all the judgments about what is necessary and appropriate in research with animals would be left to the scientists doing the research.

I can’t help but think that there must be a lot of people who recognize gray areas between these two extreme positions. Does the fact that relatively fewer of them comment on the posts reflect their discomfort with the gray areas themselves, or with how those gray areas are treated in the debate between the extreme positions?

Part of what makes the middle ground look scary here may be the pitched battle going on between groups like PETA and the scientific establishment.

As I’ve noted before, I’m no fan of PETA’s tactics, and the fact that they tend to argue in bad faith (as when they insinuate that animal use in medical research and training could be replaced completely with no hit to the average consumer’s standard of care). But this doesn’t mean that none of the concerns they raise have any merit. And every now and then someone associated with a group like PETA exposes a real problem in how animal research is being conducted.

Yet there are contexts in which expressing a worry about whether scientists are always following the regulations around animal welfare, or maybe a more general concern that we could do better with animal welfare, will make people think that you’re anti-science (or worse, a terrorist). Possibly this comes back to the instinctive loathing of bureaucracy that many of us seem to have, but I must insist that wanting to examine how we do things is not the same thing as longing for increased regulatory oversight.

Why is is so hard, in a discussion of these matters, to acknowledge that there are trade-offs? Doesn’t the fact that the most vocal participants in the discussion seem hell-bent on denying that the other side even has a legitimate interest just make it harder to find a reasonable way to balance the competing interests?

The best kind of transparency involves being open not just about what we do, but also about how we decided to do things that way rather than some other way, and why we hope the outcome will be worthwhile. What if conditions were such that scientists routinely explained — to each other and to the public — why animal use is essential in their line of research, what questions they’re trying to answer and why answering those questions would be of value, how the number of animals used reflects the minimum necessary to obtain statistically significant results, how the animals are being cared for, and so forth? Could we have a real dialogue instead of drawing battle lines and repeating talking points?

Comments

  1. #1 Jane Shevtsov
    August 27, 2007

    Thank you! I am something of an animal rights/welfare supporter and an ecology grad student, so I try to acknowledge the gray areas in many types of animal research. Both sides are frustrating; ecologists have a particular tendency to focus on species to the exclusion of individuals.

    However (there’s always a “however”), I’m a bit uncomfortable with your last paragraph. Surely, not all scientists use animals only when it’s essential, use the minimum possible number, look out for the animals’ well-being, etc. What you describe sounds like propaganda or advocacy when what we need is reasoned dialogue.

  2. #2 Christopher Taylor
    August 27, 2007

    Part of the problem you’re seeing, I think, is a result of self-reporting. Because no-one is obligated to comment, people who feel strongly on a subject are more likely to comment than those who are not so concerned, and I think the former group is more likely to hold extreme views.

    I’m assuming that animal researchers in America have to go through ethics approval? And have you found that this process is effective, or is it usually a rubber-stamp procedure?

  3. #3 Jenny
    August 27, 2007

    Gray areas there certainly are.

    On the one hand, the majority of the population seems to be in agreement that it is “more wrong” to test on humans than on other animals. There comes a point in any medical research where human testing is necessary, but we can ensure maximum safety for the test subjects by testing on similar biological systems first to be fairly sure of the outcome (and absence of nasty side effects).

    The disagreements seem to stem from wondering what kind of testing is permissible. The polar opposites of stuffing chimps full of previously unstudied drugs, or slowly creeping up the food chain from E. coli, one small step at a time.

    I’m towards the end of my undergrad in Immunology and I’ve spent the last couple of years making my peace with animal testing. I don’t like it, but accept that it is necessary. In my mind, to maintain some sort of ethical credibility we must keep in mind that the animals are living creatures too (and there are people who appear to forget that) and maintain all reasonable assurances for the animals comfort and safety.

    “Reasonable” is the gray, and I suspect that has to be a case-by-case decision.

  4. #4 Bill
    August 27, 2007

    …scientists routinely explained — to each other and to the public — why animal use is essential in their line of research, what questions they’re trying to answer and why answering those questions would be of value, how the number of animals used reflects the minimum necessary to obtain statistically significant results, how the animals are being cared for, and so forth?

    First you will have to change the entire way science is done. These things you mention are things that scientists resent having to explain to oversight committees like IACUC (because only scientists are fit to oversee science, of course[1]), and try to keep secret from each other for fear that someone will steal their precious, precious ideas.

    [1]pre-emptive concession to Bora: sure, some IACUC committees are assholes and/or incompetent, so arrogance is not the only reason the oversight is resented. I maintain, though, that it’s a primary factor.

  5. #5 Michael Clarkson
    August 27, 2007

    The question you ask implicitly assumes that “balancing the competing interests” is what the participants in this public debate are after. I do not believe that this is the case. The dialogue you desire is only meaningful if there is a common goal. But animal-rights activists and scientists have manifestly different objectives, and so the quest for a balance of interests is doomed before it starts.

    Even if animal researchers wanted to “balance interests” rather than demand total authority, PETA and their ilk would not be moved from their demand of total cessation. In that case, the willingness to compromise would only make researchers look weak, strengthening PETA’s case in the eyes of observers who mistake a willingness for compromise as confirmation of PETA’s misleading claims. Small wonder that the debate is polarized.

  6. #6 Janet D. Stemwedel
    August 27, 2007

    I’m a bit uncomfortable with your last paragraph. Surely, not all scientists use animals only when it’s essential, use the minimum possible number, look out for the animals’ well-being, etc.

    To the extent that they’re working in contexts where their protocols need approval from the IACUC, they have to make the case that they are. And, my bet is that if the culture of science included more transparency in these matters, scientists might well feel more pressure — especially from their peers — to do better with the animal welfare thing.

    I’m assuming that animal researchers in America have to go through ethics approval? And have you found that this process is effective, or is it usually a rubber-stamp procedure?

    Yes, as per the regulations linked in this post. I suspect the effectiveness of the oversight is pretty closely related to the institutional culture in which each local committee is embedded. Where I am, it’s not just a rubber stamp. You hear stories of IACUCs where the suspicion is that animal rights activists have infiltrated the committee, but I’ve heard no reliable and detailed reports of such committees (let alone enough to convince me it’s a Big Problem Threatening Science).

    First you will have to change the entire way science is done.

    You know me — always setting realistic goals!

    The question you ask implicitly assumes that “balancing the competing interests” is what the participants in this public debate are after.

    I think that’s what I find most dissatisfying about the current state of things — I think the absolutists on both ends are wrong, and in any case neither is interested in a real dialogue. Being so convinced you’re right that you refuse to take *any* other information into account strikes me as more dogmatic than scientific.

    Which is to say, I’m pretty sure (given some changes in the current conditions, as Bill points out) that scientists can do better here.

  7. #7 Peter Teiman
    August 27, 2007

    Hi there ,
    This is Peter Teiman writing from Norway, With such sophisticated computer technology available, surely less animal experimentation is possible??
    Peter Teiman

  8. #8 S. Rivlin
    August 27, 2007

    I tend to agree with Michael. The two groups have completely opposing agendas that cannot be bridged. This is not to take away from the animal rights people’s achievements in improving animal care, however, better care is not their end-point.

  9. #9 Chris
    August 28, 2007

    With such sophisticated computer technology available, surely less animal experimentation is possible??

    Believe me, Peter – if computer simulations could replace animal testing, scientists would be ecstatic. Animal testing is messy and expensive, and computational simulations could conceivably do the job in a small fraction of the time and a tiny fraction of the cost.

    Sadly, these kind of simulations don’t exist because they’re REALLY REALLY HARD to create. For one, it’s impossible to model biological systems that we don’t fully understand. Also, the sheer number of variables present in a single living cell is mind-boggling and beyond our grasp. Trying to model trillions of these cells on an organismal level isn’t going to happen anytime in the next few decades.

  10. #10 Christopher Taylor
    August 28, 2007

    With such sophisticated computer technology available, surely less animal experimentation is possible??

    Unfortunately not. Any computer model is only really as informative as the data used to construct it. If we don’t know much about the underlying processes involved (which is still the case with the vast majority of biological processes) then we can’t construct an informative model.

    That said, there are other technological advances that allow for the reduction of animal testing. It may be possible, for instance, to use tissue cultures in earlier stages of testing instead of entire living organisms. This will probably not eliminate all need for animal testing – tissue cultures are far simpler environments than entire organisms, and the possibility always remains that a drug tested on cultures of the tissue it is supposed to target will react badly on introduction to an entire organism with some hormone, enzyme, whatever floating around in the body.

  11. #11 etbnc
    August 28, 2007

    Remember that Adventurous post from a few weeks ago about having a green ethos?

    Seems to me that’s relevant here.

  12. #12 Mark P
    August 28, 2007

    Arguments about things like using animals in research are nearly always futile because the basics are never established. The basic question is whether humans should (replace with “have the right to” or whatever you want) use animals for any purpose as if we owned them and they had no intrinsic value. Some people believe that animals have intrinsic value no less than humans; in other words, they own their lives just as we own ours. Others believe that is not the case. Christians typically believe that animals are qualitatively different from humans, and that they are here for our use. Others have less well-defined views, usually taking a pragmatic approach by simply refusing to address the underlying question. I suggest that if anyone really wants to debate the use of animals in research, that they first decide the real question.

  13. #13 Clinton
    August 28, 2007

    Janet, you yourself, in trying to frame a debate, perpetuate one of the most fundamental problems. You continually attempt to insinuate or suggest that “there’s a problem” with the treatment of animals in research. Your evidence is anecdotal at best but sure, let us posit *some* cases of clear misuse. I will fully acknowledge that in this area, as in most areas of human behavior, one never achieves perfection. There will be an error rate.

    Where do we go from there? Do we, as you do, take a “this is just the tip of the land-mass-sized iceberg”? Animal righties take this position, a position that does not square with the facts in my view. Take a hard look at the number of clear cases, not conflated with as-yet-unsubstantiated accusations from those of confirmed animal extremist agenda, no matter what the USDA language says. Now look at the denominator of animal research that proceeds properly. How “bad” does the system really look then? Compare it to other areas or either regulation or law, depending on your bent. I think you would have to revise your position that “there’s a significant problem”. One of the best things you could perhaps do is to get on your local IACUC, btw if you are legitimately interested in how much the system works/doesn’t work.

    with respect to the accusation that animal research scientists are chronic stone-wallers, never to acknowledge that animals should be well treated in research settings. A similar problem of trying to combat the factually inaccurate. Animal research has made MANY improvements over the past decades that are consistent with what the legitimate animal-welfare-in-science position wants. These go unacknowledged, in other words the research side HAS compromised and even embraced (in many cases) the position of the “other side”. A failure to acknowledge (not just in words but in changed position) this shows who is intransigent in this discussion of “grey”. For those of us who continually experiment with our research protocols in ways to attempt to improve animal welfare, well, this is just plain insulting from a personal and professional perspective. I have a tough hide, I can take it but it does demonstrate to me just exactly the true nature of the complainers.

    They are not after improving animal welfare in research they are after ending it.

  14. #14 Janet D. Stemwedel
    August 28, 2007

    Clinton, I hope I’m not insinuating that the departure of some scientists from their approved protocols for animal research is just the tip of an iceberg — because my hunch is that it isn’t (and certainly, there are other venues besides scientific research where our treatment of animals seems much more problematic). Nor do I want to characterize all (or even most) animal researchers as chronic stonewallers — any more than I’d want to characterize everyone who thinks animals merit more respect than a stapler as a member of PETA

    But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real ethical considerations at play in using animals for experiments. That fact that there are — and that it’s hard to get them right, yet important to do so because of how important animal research can be — is why I think we have to get right with the gray areas and create conditions where people who don’t necessarily think with one mind can really talk about the complexities, rather than trying to shout them away.

    (But seem, the nature of the public discourse is such that it’s easy to read me — or anyone — as making a stronger claim than I’m actually trying to make.)

  15. #15 Sabrina
    August 28, 2007

    Thank you! I just was commenting on another blog about how we need to both accept the necessity of some experimentation using animals capable of suffering and recognize the gravity of such acts of harm while making an honest effort to respect what dignity we can. I too find myself at odds with strong advocates on either side of debates like these because I refuse to accept the black/white dichotomy, so it is refreshing to find others of a similar mind.

    Have you heard of the controversy over patenting animals crippled or altered by humans? I think this is another example of a gray area within the topic of animal research that ought to be openly discussed.

    (I am a bioethicist-in-training and was thrilled to find this blog. Thank you for your thoughtful post!)

  16. #16 Mark P
    August 28, 2007

    I have made the comment on other debates that this type of argument is pointless until the underlying isuses are identified and resolved. My previous comments were pretty much ignored then, too. i wonder if it’s because the underlying issue is harder than the issues that arise because the underlying issue is never resolved.

  17. #17 Steve LaBonne
    August 28, 2007

    Janet, you’re getting an awful lot of mileage out of that one UNC incident. That’s why readers can’t help wondering whether you’re trying to “argue” by insinuation. Furthermore, you seem unaware that even the most (hypothetically) callous researcher has a very strong self-interest in catching and getting rid of techs who violate protocols “because it’s easier”. Has it occurred to you that it’s almost impossible to obtain valid data if such things happen a lot?

    Sorry, I don’t think your post raises the level of public discourse. Rather the contrary.

  18. #18 Janet D. Stemwedel
    August 28, 2007

    The basic question is whether humans should (replace with “have the right to” or whatever you want) use animals for any purpose as if we owned them and they had no intrinsic value. Some people believe that animals have intrinsic value no less than humans; in other words, they own their lives just as we own ours. Others believe that is not the case.

    Mark, I agree that this is the crux of the issue. But how we get a good answer to it is the challenge. (It’s not as straightforward as working out the weight of a hydrogen atom.) Do you have any thoughts on a good way to make progress on this question, or are we doomed to impasse from the start?

    Janet, you’re getting an awful lot of mileage out of that one UNC incident.

    If I’m down on PETA for not arguing in good faith, it seems like I need to acknowledge one fairly significant incident where they were right.

    And, I’m not saying all scientists are scofflaws when it comes to animal welfare regulations. I have to believe it’s only a small minority. But, it’s much harder to convince the public that scientists are all committed to the regulations when a lab at a prominent university gets nailed — twice — for this kind of thing.

    In an honest debate, we can’t set aside inconvenient facts. We can argue that they’re outliers, but that doesn’t erase them.

  19. #19 Clinton
    August 28, 2007

    Dr. F-R, not sure if you think i’m “talking” or “shouting”, I can certainly do either. and believe me I recognize your professorial behavior in these instances, i’m not really assuming too much about your personal beliefs when it comes down to it.

    But surely you recognize that when one side of a reasoned discussion always (and I mean ALWAYS) brings up a few isolated and more-or-less proven cases as if they reflect all animal research, conflates all animal research with “cosmetics testing” (have you been around scientists? cosmetics products aren’t high on their list of important things!), completely miss the point that the types of really-bad animal treatment that is the subject of animal rights propaganda is completely antithetical to the research goals, accuses IACUCs of being universal rubber-stamps, insist (completely wrongly) that scientists are doing all these invasive procedures on “chimps” (see Jenny above), and on and on with the talking points….well, it doesn’t encourage a reasoned response.

    Here’s something for you to think about. You launch these posts in which the challenge questions are directed at animal research. This results in some (IMHO) halfway decent commenting. Certainly the animal righties expose the talking-points surficial manner in which they address the issue. Scientist responses tend to point out specific defenses, even if you find them insufficiently nuanced. Scientist also challenge the aforementioned sloppy-thinking animal rights leaning comments. Notice how we never get any reasonable response to the key questions there? Which advances are they personally going to forgo forever for themselves and their children? Why do they find use of a monkey to differ from that of a fruit fly in some consistently rational and definable framework? Which population of sufferers are they going to condemn to no further advances in treatment? Etc. How about you pose a critique of the animal rights position and see if you get any reasoned responses from that angle?

  20. #20 John
    August 28, 2007

    Christopher wrote:
    “It may be possible, for instance, to use tissue cultures in earlier stages of testing instead of entire living organisms.”

    So what? It’s not only possible, it’s the norm. It’s meaningless in terms of animal rights, because tissue culture still involves exploiting animals, often in particularly gruesome ways, like cardiac puncture without anesthesia.

    It’s amazing to watch liars who claim that animals have rights try to rationalize this hypocrisy from their position of aggressive ignorance.

  21. #21 Drugmonkey
    August 28, 2007

    Mark P: Not sure which side you are taking if any. But I would suggest that scientists do indeed grapple with your fundamental question. And come up with a fairly unequivocal answer that, yes, we are speciest and do not equate humans with animals. Thus, the use of animals in research is acceptable for purposes for which we would not use human subjects.

    This does not in any way suggest that what types of use animals are to be put is not graded, controlled or entails moral/ethical considerations. These are issues worthy of much discussion. It is just that the first fundamental question has been answered.

    In striking contrast, the animal rights positions on this are all over the map and to my view reflect a minimal degree of engagement. If we are “equal” with the “animals” where does this take us? Are you a strict vegan who doesn’t take antibiotics and refuses to slap mosquitoes? OK, I can start to validate the position, even if I don’t agree with it. But once hypocrisy starts creeping in and one starts being more interested in the rights of dogs over fruit flies or monkeys over mosquitoes, well, the fundamental question has not been answered now has it?

    For the strict practitioner, I have a question. Are humans *below* all other animals in terms of moral and ethical rights? How do you address the consideration that most of the animal kingdom exists in a species-based struggle to eat each other, monopolize material resources, etc? To pull examples out of complete air, the macaque species, rats and mice and cockroaches are some of the top natural competitors for geographical market share. Do they owe moral debt to other less-successful species?

  22. #22 Steve LaBonne
    August 28, 2007

    In an honest debate, we can’t set aside inconvenient facts.

    But we can recycle the same anecdotes repeatedly over a period of years and pretend that’s a contribution to an honest debate?

  23. #23 Oaktown Girl
    August 28, 2007

    Doesn’t the fact that the most vocal participants in the discussion seem hell-bent on denying that the other side even has a legitimate interest just make it harder to find a reasonable way to balance the competing interests?

    Back in the 80′s when we were both in college, my brother was* one of these folks on the scientists’ side. What frustrated me most was that he could not see he was being exactly as extreme as the people he was accusing of fanatical extremism.

    *I say “was” because I don’t know if he still is. He was so black and white on the issue, I just stopped discussing it with him because there was nothing to discuss.

  24. #24 Mark P
    August 28, 2007

    My comment was posed simply to make it plain that usually there is no judgement about the underlying assumptions. If you consider the underlying question, you come to the conclusion fairly quickly that there is no universal answer short of refusing to harm any living organisim. That leaves the rest of us who slap mosquitos.

    Once we recognize that some judgements must be made, it becomes a little harder to condemn a position without some very serious consideration of the facts. Personally I think it’s wrong to harm an organism that can feel pain in a way similar to the way we do. That means it’s wrong to kill cows and chickens to eat them. But I eat them anyway. All I can do is urge that the cows and chickens we eat be treated humanely while alive and killed humanely when it’s dinner time. Unfortunately, that is very, very seldom the case in the US. But I continue to eat cows and chickens. I’m a hypocrit.

    Scientific research is a slightly different issue in my view, mainly because we are carnivores (OK, omnivores, but most of us eat meat when we can, whether it’s harmful to the meat or to us) but scientific research is a recent innovation, one that results from our intelligence and our ability to manipulate the world. Those qualities do not give us a moral pass on this issue. The fact that it benefits humans (It does, doesn’t it? There is no case in which this is not true, right?) also does not give us a moral pass on the question. So there is nothing left but compromise, and in my view, using animals as research subjects is indeed a compromise with a completely ethical view of the world. But I’ll take the drug so developed if it becomes necessary, as will most of the rest of us.

    The fact that we even ask these questions indicates a maturing intellect on the part of humanity. But even so, when we made ethical decisions to harm animals for our benefit, we are acting not out of reason but out of instinct. Our reason is the servant of our intsinct, and we can certainly come up with reasonable reasons to do what we would do anyway.

    So, we should make damned sure that we treat the animals as humanely as possible, that we don’t cause pain to experimental animals to any great extent and that we ensure that the use of such animals is absolutely necessary for a truly beneficial purpose.

    But I think when the debates come, we do not have ethics on our side. We have only rationalization.

  25. #25 etbnc
    August 28, 2007

    Mark P, I’m glad you elaborated. Your longer comment begins to draw a bigger picture. It looks to me like the bigger picture I had in mind when I mentioned the “green ethos” from an earlier post.

    The healthiest attitudes I’ve encountered about human interaction with other species (and about human interaction with the rest of the world, in general) the healthiest attitudes I’ve encountered come from the older traditions of indigenous cultures. I think of Native American traditions, for example, and many other indigenous peoples whose ways were recorded before their cultures were assimilated. Most (not necessarily all, but most) cultures included attitudes of respect for other species even when their human ways included hunting and eating those species.

    They made it work. I’m confident we can make it work, too, if we choose. It seems to me there are a number of unhealthy and unsustainable attitudes embedded in our culture right now. But our culture is ours to modify, whenever we decide it could work better.

    Cheers

  26. #26 David Hunter
    August 29, 2007

    Okay then, bring it.

    Janet, the main issue about the hand wringing what about the grey areas position is that if you are consistent about the extreme science position (Animals have no moral status) or the extreme animal rights position (Animals have equal moral status with humans) there are no grey areas whatsoever, either animal experimentation is completely right (In any form with any suffering note since the animals have no moral status) or completely wrong.

    It seems very hard to justify a grey area position, perhaps a utilitarian account where we recognise animals have moral status but then we use them to maximise utility. But it seems difficult to justify not also using humans in this way on that account.

    I do agree however that there are worse things from any perspective than animal experimentation, such as the eating of animals, since animal experimentation involves a one off amount of animal suffering for an ongoing generator of good, whereas killing animals for food…

    Drugmonkey, the supposed clarity and consistency of the scientist position as compared to the animal rights position is sociologically interesting but easily explained. Biological scientists depend as a profession on the acceptability of animal experimentation, it is hardly surprising that they almost unanimously support it… I suspect that if you could go back and ask plantation owners about the legitimacy of owning slaves most would say it was okay, and that the detractors would represent a wide range of varied positions.

    If people want to standardly treat animals differently than humans, just as in the slave case, this is only going to be justifiable if there is some morally relevant difference between humans and animals.

    The big issue is identifying what has moral status. There are two questions to be asked here, namely what gives moral status, and do particular animals possess it.

    Personally I think there is no one single characteristic that grants moral status the world is somewhat more complicated than that. I’m inclined to think there are at least three sufficient but not necessary conditions for having moral status:
    1. Sentience (The ability to suffer, either physically or mentally).
    2. Self Awareness. (In a minimal sense)
    3. The ability to form agreements/contracts.

    It would seem to me on this account animals do indeed have moral status (Note I am not saying rights since I am not a rights theorist).

    Does this mean that all animal experimentation is bad. No of course not, just like some non-consensual human experimentation can be justified so can some animal experimentation. In other words once we have settled the moral status debate, we then need to argue about what morality entails more generally.

    Nonetheless I am inclined to think recognising that animals have moral status does require dropping much of the present process of biomedical science research. Personally I am happy with that. I agree it is a shame to forgo the benefits, but just like we could potentially be far more productive with slaves, the benefits to us, don’t outweigh the harms to others.

    I do agree with Janet though that both sides of the debate engage in tactics that are in poor or bad faith. Of course ceasing most animal experimentation and/or animal consumption will have costs to our life style and maybe our health. Nonetheless if it is the right thing to do, then it is what we ought to do.

    PS, yes I am a vegetarian who avoids most medical products (mainly because they contain animals, rather than because of the experimentation)
    PPS the consistency of my behaviour is in any case irrelevant to the argument, but I know otherwise someone is going to make the ad hominem argument in response, it has been wheeled out several times above.

  27. #27 Drugmonkey
    August 29, 2007

    David H, you say:
    “PPS the consistency of my behaviour is in any case irrelevant to the argument, but I know otherwise someone is going to make the ad hominem argument in response,”
    and yet you yourself appear fond of “wheeling out” the standard ad hominem
    “Drugmonkey, the supposed clarity and consistency of the scientist position as compared to the animal rights position is sociologically interesting but easily explained. Biological scientists depend as a profession on the acceptability of animal experimentation, it is hardly surprising that they almost unanimously support it.”
    so what, according to you anyone who works in science only supports animal research because they make a living from it? Likely you believe disease advocates are likely compromised because they “only believe in animal research because Gramma has Alzheimer’s and Cousin Bob was a recalcitrant drunk”?

    Who is permitted, in your view, to hold a pro-research view that isn’t fundamentally compromised by some sort of self-interest? And in a like vein how do you view the opinions of professional and ideologically-fundamentalist-committed animal righties? Are their viewpoints fundamentally compromised the instant they get some observable benefit, like the local press coverage burnishing their egos?

  28. #28 John
    August 29, 2007

    By using the term “animal experimentation,” you are pretending that only the use of whole animals as direct experimental subjects is ethically relevant, while ignoring the vast majority of animal exploitation (some of it very painful) for polemic clarity.

    David Hunter, the extreme animal-rights position has huge gray areas; it’s just that blatant lies are used to make the gray areas (“non-animal alternatives”) look white as snow. Even Tom Regan uses these lies.

    For the ultimate in AR dishonesty, contrast PeTA’s claim about the Nobel-winning polio work with the Nobel lecture. PeTA is so dishonest that they describe LD50 assays and paralysis of monkeys this way:

    [i]For example, the development of the polio vaccine involved two separate bodies of work–the in vitro or non-animal studies, which were awarded the Nobel Prize,…[/i]

    Here’s the legend to Figure 1 (the meat) of the Nobel lecture:

    [i]Fig. 1. Mouse infectivity of pools of fluids removed at four-day intervals from sus-
    pended cell cultures of human embryonic skin-muscle tissue inoculated with Lansing
    mouse-brain virus. [/i]

    The Y-axis of the top graph is clearly labeled “Mouse titer pooled fluids (LD50/0.03ml).”

    In the text, the Nobel lecture clearly states:
    [i]Accordingly the virus in the form of an infected suspension of mouse brain
    was introduced into several of these cultures of human tissue which were
    then handled exactly as in the experiments with the mumps agent. By inoc-
    ulation of mice with the fluids removed from the original cultures as well as
    with those taken from subsequent serial passages in vitro it soon became
    apparent that multiplication of the virus regularly occurred. Introduction of
    fluid from the third passage into the brains of monkeys was followed by the
    appearance of typical flaccid paralysis of the legs. [/i]

    Only a moron or a liar could describe this as “in vitro” or “non-animal.”

  29. #29 David Hunter
    August 29, 2007

    Drugmonkey I wasn’t making the argument you are suggesting, I was just suggesting that we shouldn’t hypothesise from the consistency of biomedical scientists views that this shows that their views are in some way superior since this consistency can be explained in other ways. Was this the ad hominem you were referring to?

    I should note as well that my argument is not that they are compromised by self interest (I don’t think having self interested reasons to hold a moral position compromises their position in any case). Instead it is that people who believe animals have rights in the strong sense are not likely to enter a profession which entails (in their view) violating those rights.

  30. #30 ponderingfool
    August 29, 2007

    Asking questions about research and how it is done is totally fair game. Is the animal model the correct one? Is it actually answering the questions you are asking? Is the research being carried out in a way that doesn’t bias the results? Researchers should be asking this of one another as well as those overseeing the research. When there are breakdowns in “ethics” with regards of testing animals or even humans usually you can find poor science being done as well.

  31. #31 Drugmonkey
    August 30, 2007

    “Drugmonkey I wasn’t making the argument you are suggesting, I was just suggesting that we shouldn’t hypothesise from the consistency of biomedical scientists views that this shows that their views are in some way superior since this consistency can be explained in other ways. Was this the ad hominem you were referring to?
    I should note as well that my argument is not that they are compromised by self interest”

    Yes, this was the ad hominem and to assert this as an explanation for consistency is to make the attack. Do you believe it or not? If not, that you should perhaps entertain the idea that, yes, the pro-animal research viewpoint is more consistent because it is more well-considered. It makes some explicit assumptions and backs other points up with facts and data. Therefore it is more valid. You will recall these points were made in response to the “fundamental question” posed by MarkP. Not knowing which way he as going with that, I asserted that it is not the pro-science position that contributes to “gray” on that specific issue.

    It is conceivable to me that an anti-research position could attain an equivalent internal validity. They don’t. The positions are all over the place, hunting and pecking for validations, misrepresenting facts of the natural world in favor of “belief” systems, misrepresenting the actual conduct of science as it is, excusing personal hypocrisy of a fairly flagrant nature, demonizing the “opposition”, attemting to undercut a valid position with an ad hominem attack and refusing to answer critique.

    In short, it is a fundamentalist and denialist religion at this point, no more, no less.

  32. #32 Jane Shevtsov
    August 30, 2007

    Surely, not all scientists use animals only when it’s essential, use the minimum possible number, look out for the animals’ well-being, etc.

    To the extent that they’re working in contexts where their protocols need approval from the IACUC, they have to make the case that they are.

    I remember one of my professors at UCLA, who did research in behavioral genetics, talk about mice who’d rather get long shocks than exercise. (I don’t remember his exact phrasing, but he was underlining the fact that the alternative to exercise was rather painful.) How is this a necessary experiment? And it’s easy to defend using animals to find a cure for cancer, but what about a treatment for acne or restless legs syndrome? “Medical” does not automatically mean “worthwhile”.

    And, my bet is that if the culture of science included more transparency in these matters, scientists might well feel more pressure — especially from their peers — to do better with the animal welfare thing.

    Agreed! Transparency and honest debate about the ways in which we may treat animals are helpful; propaganda by either side isn’t.

  33. #33 David Hunter
    August 31, 2007

    Drug Monkey
    I think we disagree with what constitutes an ad hominem then. Your argument basically goes like this:
    Group A & group B disagree about X
    Group A’s beliefs are more consistent, and group B have a plurality of inconsistent reasons.
    Therefore Group A’s beliefs are more likely to be right.

    I was simply pointing out that group A both have professional pressures to believe X & are likely to be self selecting for X believers. I don’t see either of those claims as “attacks” Do you honestly think neither of those factors explain some scientists pro-animal experimentation position? If they do then this undermines the hidden premise, namely that a set of beliefs held consistently by a large group is likely to be held because it is correct.

    There are other factors as well that can explain the “consistency” (Which I should note I am only conceding for the sake of the argument) such as many biomedical scientists get taught (briefly) about the ethics of using animals in experiments, both explicitly and implicitly, these classes typically support the (restricted) usage of animals for the greater good of humanity. This does not occur in the general public. Would you not expect a group who has been taught and trained in a particular belief/view to hold that view more consistently than a group that hasn’t?

    There are of course other issues with the argument. It could be used to great effect as an anti-evolution pro-creation argument if it was valid. Creationists tend to be far more consistent with their set of beliefs than evolutionists who keep disagreeing about all those pesky little details. I’d hate to infer from that that the creationists are more likely to be correct.

    Anyway you ask if I believe the claim myself. The answer is yes, of course I believe that some, perhaps even a considerable percentage of biomedical scientists views about animal experimentation is shaped by their professional occupation, both in terms of the incentives to continue in it, the self selection of who joins it in the first place and the training they get. This seems uncontroversial to me, we have plenty of examples of social mores or self serving group beliefs acting as blinkers in the past (witness the reluctance of natural scientists in the past to acknowledge “deviant” sexual behaviour among animals) So why think today’s biomedical scientists are unlikely to be affected by similar factors.

    I should say I see no reason to think pro-animal experimentation in general, or in particular in biomedical scientists is more thought out or consistent. I’m saying this from some experience since I presently teach bioethics in a School of Biomedical Science, and have taught on animal ethics. I’ve also taught at my previous university in philosophy on animal rights to first year arts students. Neither group had as a general rule a particularly well thought out, coherent or consistent position, most had not really genuinely considered the question, and most students experienced a fair amount of cognitive dissonance at the topic and were resistant to even really engaging. Hardly surprising since few people want to consider that what they do day in day out could be deeply morally wrong.

    “It is conceivable to me that an anti-research position could attain an equivalent internal validity. They don’t. The positions are all over the place, hunting and pecking for validations, misrepresenting facts of the natural world in favor of “belief” systems, misrepresenting the actual conduct of science as it is, excusing personal hypocrisy of a fairly flagrant nature, demonizing the “opposition”, attemting to undercut a valid position with an ad hominem attack and refusing to answer critique.

    In short, it is a fundamentalist and denialist religion at this point, no more, no less.”

    In regards to this claim, what about the fairly straightforward argument I gave above, namely that there is no significant moral difference between all humans and all animals such that we may treat them as we wish?

    Cheers
    David

  34. #34 anonymous
    September 2, 2007

    What grey area?

    The question is yes or no.

    Does the animal in question have the right to live?

    If the answer is yes, then you can’t experiment on it and kill it.

    If the answer is no, then experiment away.

  35. #35 Drugmonkey
    September 2, 2007

    David, you are, perhaps willfully, elevating the point about “consistency” of belief to a place I never took it. I am not advancing your “hidden premise” but if you want to descend into post-modern deconstructionist bullshit feel free. Just because professors get paid for that doesn’t mean, however, that it really advances any legitimate debate. Getting back to the point, consistency is only a way-station on the road to truth, validity, progress, what have you. Your example is, in any case, false. Creationists are in fact highly inconsistent in their professions of belief. Evolutionists incorporate the possibility of changing theory based on emerging facts quite well so supposed “inconsistencies” of fact (as opposed to approach) pointed out by rabid creationists are generally accounted for.

    WRT ad hominem and motivations: I take your point entirely about selection of the sample. I agree. What I was addressing is your continued contention that some biomedical scientists “believe in” the practice of animal research solely because this is their occupation. Is it true for some? surely it must be but I would contend a vanishingly small minority. Your comments are generally enough that you are clearly leveling this charge at a significant fraction. Using an accusation of personal motivation to attempt to deny the validity of an argument advanced by that person is a classic ad hominem technique. It would be as if suggesting that the best critique of the animal rights’ position was to point out the professionals who draw their income and support from their AR activities. It may be a valid critique of them but it is not a very good critique of their positions.

    “what about the fairly straightforward argument I gave above, namely that there is no significant moral difference between all humans and all animals such that we may treat them as we wish?”

    This would be a very effective starting point for a consistent anti-animal-use perspective that I could start to respect, yes. The thing is, I would wish to see coherent and consistent follow through. Without the “oh, I’m a sinner and I’m trying to repent” types of attempts to defang critique on the basis of hypocrisy for non-vegans, users of medical products and a great deal of other safety-tested modern products. Without the “oh, but cute-n-fuzzy animals are more equal than other animals”. Without the (in my view very likely) potential for sick-bed conversion. Without parsing whether limulus is an animal or for that matter whether E.coli are animals. Etc.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.