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?