Adventures in Ethics and Science

Earlier this month, I wrote a post on California’s Researcher Protection Act of 2008, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law on September 28. There, I noted that some opponents of the law expressed concerns that the real intent (and effect) of the law was not to protect those who do academic research with animals, but instead to curtail the exercise of free speech. I also wrote:

I’m left not sure how I feel about this law. Will it have a certain psychological value, telling researchers that the state is behind them, even if it doesn’t actually make much illegal that wasn’t already illegal? Will it end up curtailing free speech, possibly driving more people to pursue “direct actions” against researchers because their attempts at dialogue are frustrated?

In comments on this post, Clinton raised some important issues about what is — and is not — involved in a dialogue, especially around the question of research with animals. Clinton wrote:

Why is it when you write “dialogue” what I read is “getting their way”?

There is no problem with the dialogue. Particularly in these days of the internets and blogz and all that, people who oppose the use of animals in research can sound off to their heart’s content. It is very likely they can find a venue for dialog with animal research supporters as well. They are free to lobby their local Congressional representative. With just a little effort they can probably get on their local nightly news. “Dialogue” is freely available.

People on the animal rights bandwagon who are “driven to direct action” are not being driven by a failure of dialogue but rather by a failure to get their way. It is a failure on their part to convince a majority that they are correct in their extremist views.


And, in a subsequent comment:

This ["I'm not being heard"] is what each new fresh faced undergrad or hippiecrust down the pike seems to think when complaining that UCLA or their local professors or whatnot isn’t “dialoguing” with them by holding the same old useless “hearings” between animal researchers, the institution and the extremists. Sometimes, my young friends, your position is far from unique and has already been raised in the greater dialogue. Sorry, but you don’t get special treatment just because you are young, smart and anguished. Stating the same old issues more loudly isn’t “dialogue” and when the system can’t expend the time to deal with each N=347th of you individually it isn’t evidence of a problem…

Clinton is right that engaging in a dialogue does not presuppose that you will get your way in the end.

What you should get in a dialogue is the opportunity to have your say, a chance to articulate your reasons for your views. And those with whom you are in dialogue will hear your reasons and acknowledge them. After all this, they may still disagree with your point of view. Disagreeing with you doesn’t mean they’re doing dialogue wrong.

Of course, if you’re committed to really engaging in dialogue, it means you hear their positions and reasons for them, too. Possibly, you even have occasion to change your stand, although you might not. Dialogues can end as they began, with disagreement, but there should at least be greater understanding of the source of the disagreement.

There are complicating factors in discussions around the use of animals in research. One is that the current climate in the U.S., where being known as someone who participates in such research can make you a target for harassment and violence, isn’t one that invites impromptu rap sessions between animal researchers and those with concerns about such research; it’s hard to tell violent activists just by looking at them. Another, which Clinton identifies, is that there may be an asymmetry as far as how much dialogue researchers and those with worries about the research have already undertaken. If you’re a sophomore in your first ethics class, really grappling with questions about animal research for the first time, you may be hungry to talk about this questions with researchers. If you’re a scientist conducting such research, you may feel pretty talked out on the issue, not having much patience for the same arguments you’ve heard umpteen times before and having even less faith that your attempts to articulate your arguments this time will make a lasting impression on this new interlocutor (let alone on next year’s fired up sophomore).

I understand this frustration. I teach; how could I not? Each year, students make the same mistakes I’ve seen a hundred times before. That’s why, each year, I keep drawing a paycheck for teaching them. But, sometimes, I kind of wish the students would give me novel mistakes to deal with. Nonetheless, it’s my job to help address the mistakes my students actually make — to try to meet them where they are, rather than where I want them to be already.

For the researcher dealing with the lay person, there’s less of a clear duty to educate (and to not lose your patience). However, I’d like to think there’s a certain regard we owe each other as human beings trying to get along in a society together. Given that many researchers are drawing at least part of their funding from public sources, trying to foster respectful engagement with lay persons just seems sensible. Also, the regulatory landscape in which scientists work (including the Animal Welfare Act) is shaped by the concerns of the larger society.

In other words, even if each scientist who does research with animals cannot expend the time to deal with each young, smart, anguished person looking for dialogue, the community of researchers ought to have meaningful ways to engage with concerned members of the public.

My view is this: If you’re doing research with animals — or protesting against research with animals — you ought to have really thought about the issues. You ought to have really considered the arguments and concerns raised by each side in coming to your own view. It’s not enough to say, someone on my side has engaged in the dialogue, mounted a successful argument, devised a defensible position. I think this is a bit of cognitive labor that you can’t really farm out to someone else.

However, your obligation to really engage with the issues yourself does not obligate you to engage each new person who raises the same objection to your view. (Being able to hand them a pamphlet, or a list of recommended reading, or a link or two that could hook them up with a good DVD might get these new people engaging with the thinking you’ve already done, though.)

You need to take me seriously when I tell you that I’ve heard your argument before and that I’ve really thought the issue through. I need to take you seriously when you tell me the same.

The fact that I’ve heard your concerns before doesn’t make them dumb. It just means I have a head start on you in terms of engaging these issues.

At the same time, the very fact that I’ve engaged with these concerns before and don’t think they’re a problem isn’t enough to make you believe they’re not a problem. If I want you to change your mind, I’ll need to persuade you. If you want me to change my mind, you’ll need to persuade me. And reasons to change my mind that I’ve already heard probably won’t work — you’ll have to offer me new reasons that are more persuasive.

For humans, sharing of society doesn’t mean sharing a hive-mind. We all draw our lines a little differently. Being able to explain — to others and to yourself — why you draw your lines where you do is a good thing. It can reassure you that they are reasoned, rather than arbitrary. It can help you explain the choices reflected in your protocol to the IACUC. It can help you sleep well at night.

And maybe, it can help you communicate your stand to others and give them something to think about in working out their stands.

Comments

  1. #1 Clinton
    October 29, 2008

    Janet there is another aspect to genuine dialog which you overlook. Namely the mutual agreement for progress in the discussion. To commit to agreeing to facts as established and to clearly outline where belief and faith-based opinions diverge from factually and logically based views. To commit to clearly defining “concerns” in a way that can actually be addressed. To eschew goalpost moving and other denialist tactics.

    You ought to have really considered the arguments and concerns raised by each side in coming to your own view. It’s not enough to say, someone on my side has engaged in the dialogue, mounted a successful argument, devised a defensible position. I think this is a bit of cognitive labor that you can’t really farm out to someone else.

    Agreed. Is there a way to search Scienceblog’s for the number of blind cites of Peter Singer without any evidence of individual consideration? Because it becomes overwhelmingly clear each time these threads emerge that voices in support of animal research go through a consideration of “Is it justified, is it not justified, here’s why it is” which is in clear contrast to the opposing view of “It isn’t justified and how do we stop it or minimize it?”.

    The fact that I’ve heard your concerns before doesn’t make them dumb. It just means I have a head start on you in terms of engaging these issues.

    This does a disservice. Expressing either directly or indirectly that someone’s arguments are dumb, naive or have failed is most certainly not the same as saying that the concern itself is dumb. It strikes me that this is what the person advancing uninformed criticisms of animal research may in fact hear which is interesting. They do so, of course, because it deflects them away from considering whether they are wrong or have taken a lazy approach to the problem.

  2. #2 Janne
    October 29, 2008

    A few reactions:

    First, it is a right to free speech or free press (the formulation differs by country). It is a right to speak, not a right to be heard. Being stopped from speaking your mind is a free speech issue. Not having anybody willing to listen is not.

    Second, I disagree that it is the responsibility of each and every researcher to hold a dialog with the public. We don’t demand that in any other publicly funded field; why should research specifically be different? Police, fire brigades and hospitals all have specific individuals tasked with press contacts or inquiries from the public; nobody expects each and every fireman at a station (for instance) to make themselves available for the press or any curious passer-by.

    Yes, researchers have a duty to disseminate results. We do that – in journals and in conferences, ready to be picked up by the people who’s job it really is to bring such to the wider public, like science journalists. Or, in the case of animal research, every such research facility should have an assigned spokesperson who’s job includes press and public contact. It may be a researcher willing to take the job, or an administrator. But it should be recognized as a job in its own right, with assigned hours, salary, and responsibilities.

    Don’t conflate “researcher” with “teacher”. Some teachers are researchers, and a fair number of researchers are also teachers. But lots of people are only teachers or only researchers. They are different jobs, and not everybody does both – not everybody is suitable for both.

  3. #3 Mark P
    October 30, 2008

    “To commit to agreeing to facts as established and to clearly outline where belief and faith-based opinions diverge from factually and logically based views.”

    There is a strong implication of an assumption that animal researchers base their positions on fact and logic, while those who oppose animal research base their positions on beliefs and faith. I think this attitude is fairly common, and as a result, I suspect that animal research opponents have come to believe that it is not possible to persuade animal researchers that animal research is wrong because they have already concluded based on their beliefs that it is not wrong.

    A dialogue is almost bound to fail because the two sides come at the question with fundamentally different attitudes and beliefs. There are no facts on either side (save a few counter examples that involve mainly living organisms that we don’t normally call “animals”, like flies or bacteria – few would argue against research based on these organisms). There is the belief that the reduction of human suffering, and sometimes only the advancement of knowledge, is worth the suffering of non-human animals. And there is the belief that it is not. There is the belief that if we ensure that the animals do not suffer too much, then the remaining suffering is OK. And there is the belief that it is not. It all comes down to a value judgement, and researchers are every bit as human as anyone else; they believe their values are right, and opposing values are wrong.

    How are you going to reach common ground here? I think both sides are beyond persuasion. Maybe in a hundred years people will look back on this argument and wonder how anyone could have believed in (choose your side).

    Should animal researchers simply restrict their argument to those who have not made up their minds and ignore their opponents? That certainly simplifies the problem, and it allows animal researchers to use violent activists as bogeymen to show the logical and factual bankruptcy of their opponents’ arguments. But to be intellectually honest, those who argue in favor of animal research really should not use the actions of the extremists to refute the arguments of all opponents. And intellectual honesty also requires that both sides admit that their positions are based on philosophical beliefs.

    Now here’s the test: is it possible for one to look at what I have said rather than at what one thinks I have said?

  4. #4 Clinton
    October 30, 2008

    Now here’s the test: is it possible for one to look at what I have said rather than at what one thinks I have said?

    Of course not and you are attempting to pre-slant the discussion your way. All we have to go on, my friend, is what you write. Also, the discussion is a world wide one in which one inevitably assumes there is a broader audience (blog readership always dwarfs blog-commenters from what I gather) to address. Since you and I and everyone else does this to some extent, why bother with this? I’m not just talking to any one person here even if I am riffing off of one of your comments.

    There is a strong implication of an assumption that animal researchers base their positions on fact and logic, while those who oppose animal research base their positions on beliefs and faith.

    In my view this is correct for the most part. What is more important from my perspective is that scientists are much clearer about narrowing down the areas in which their viewpoints come down to unsupported preferences or beliefs. Also that (good) scientists are always open to the idea that they are incorrect and actively consider opposing evidence.

    I think this attitude is fairly common, and as a result, I suspect that animal research opponents have come to believe that it is not possible to persuade animal researchers that animal research is wrong because they have already concluded based on their beliefs that it is not wrong.

    As per the comment Janet picked up from before, this is confusing a failure to mount a convincing argument (and quite possibly being entirely wrong on the merits) with some fault or lacking in the opposition position. This is important. Do the animal rights people ever consider that they might be wrong? Or suggest a way to test their hypotheses with a commitment to changing their outlook if the results come out differently than they would predict? Scientists do this on an ongoing basis at the tactical level when it comes to refining their protocols to minimize distress and animal numbers. They do it at a larger level too- I happen to know many animal researchers who are very conversant with the areas of research that are usually the focus of what evidence-based argument exists. That would be the areas of higher cognition, language and social behavior that is purported to show that animals are “just like us” in these properties. There are areas of the pain literature that are relevant as well. I generally find that when pressed the animal rights advocate has only the slightest appreciation of the quality of the evidence.

    Here’s a question for the home crowd: “Has any animal model revealed a capacity for real language (not “communication”, language) that is qualitatively similar to language development in the normal human toddler?”

    There are no facts on either side

    There is the belief that the reduction of human suffering, and sometimes only the advancement of knowledge, is worth the suffering of non-human animals. And there is the belief that it is not. There is the belief that if we ensure that the animals do not suffer too much, then the remaining suffering is OK. And there is the belief that it is not. It all comes down to a value judgement,

    Actually, I agree with this as the diagnosis of what the legitimate debate should be about. I find it very rare to run across an animal rights position that gets to this key point and sticks with it. Certainly the PR game never goes here. I jump in at the prior level when people are promulgating the falsehoods regarding extant evidence. The idea that we have no “facts” is incorrect. We have much evidence on pain, suffering and distress. It is my understanding of such evidence that the design (we can debate practice but that is another issue entirely) of the current scientific enterprise that we have reached a point in which overt behavioral and physiological signs indicate no pain, suffering or distress. Animal righties very typically fail to express understanding or acceptance of this evidence. I am always willing to entertain the notion that such evidence remains and that we are not measuring it the right way. What I hear, however, is a refusal to abandon the belief that animals in research labs are in distress (almost by definition) even when there is no evidence to suggest that they are in distress. That is theology.

    I have no problem with arguing the ethics of “do we have the right to use the animals this way” just so long as it is not starting from a misrepresentation of the actual evidence.

    But to be intellectually honest, those who argue in favor of animal research really should not use the actions of the extremists to refute the arguments of all opponents.

    I do not argue this at all. I debate what I can glean are the merits of the arguments and attempt to show that much of the breadth of anti-animal-research sentiment is based on things that are factually incorrect. Admittedly, I do find that the existence of the radical fundamentalist extremist branch confirms my larger argument that this is all a theological exercise with all the usual trappings.

  5. #5 Mark P
    October 30, 2008

    “Of course not and you are attempting to pre-slant the discussion your way. All we have to go on, my friend, is what you write.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “pre-slant” but I presume you think I am an animal rights activist. That is not correct. What I am is a scientist who does not do animal research and who can therefore look at the issue with some disinterest. But what I was really trying to do was not look at the issue, but at the argument. I know that it’s hard for the participants to consider the process of the argument without regard to the merits or outcome, but I think there is some value in that. Clarifying that might, in some cases, lead to a more productive discussion.

    You have pointed out one area in which there may, indeed, be fact, or at least evidence – a scientific approach to quantifying suffering. I concede that point, although with limits. And I agree that many, but perhaps not all, opponents of animal research would not consider that to be evidence that animal research is acceptable.

    I don’t find much in your post to argue with, although I believe you may be subject to the same attitude I tried to describe, namely that your position is right, so the outcome of any discussion should be that the animal rights activists convert to your view. Any discussion is pointless if neither side can even conceive of compromise.

    I do think you are incorrect to characterize animal rights activists in general as being motivated by theology. Most christian theology considers animals and their suffering to be pretty much meaningless. Or are you using the term “theological” in a looser sense?

  6. #6 Clinton
    October 30, 2008

    That is not correct. What I am is a scientist who does not do animal research and who can therefore look at the issue with some disinterest.

    Yeah, I’ve gathered by your comments over time although a contention by anyone that they are any less biased than anyone else is insupportable. It just makes your biases less obvious. What I meant is that attempts to define the scope of a debate that you find acceptable is a bit bogus.
    It is a common failing of internet based discussions for people to distract off into “well, yeah I wrote that but what I really meant was obviously…..”. Just let the discussion go where it will is my advice.

    . Or are you using the term “theological” in a looser sense?

    I use this in the looser sense. It is the Church of Animal Rights, not any particular tie to existing recognized religions. I use theological in the sense that the primary motivating factor is a faith that one is correct. This faith renders the opinions of the faithful (on this topic) entirely resistant to data or logical inquiry just as does faith in an all-powerful deity.

    Now you may suggest that an adherence to the power of data, experiment and logical inquiry is itself a type of theological orientation. Perhaps that is so but that would make the anti-animal-research position a globally anti-science one and I don’t think this is at all worth discussing. Those types are simply not going to be reached by any discussion.

    So we are left with a structure in which both sides agree that facts and evidence about the state of the natural world actually matter.

    And I agree that many, but perhaps not all, opponents of animal research would not consider that to be evidence that animal research is acceptable.

    My point here is that almost inevitably the critique of animal research starts with pain and suffering and then rapidly morphs into “capacity” which means the degree to which various animal species seem human like. Therefore the degree to which we might project how a human would feel in a given situation to how the animal might feel. These are considerations for which there is indeed evidence. And the evidence does not really support the positions taken by the animal rights side. Once one demonstrates this (or merely opens the discussion) one gets one of two responses. The most credible one is the backing up to the higher level “We have no right, suffering or no”. The less credible one is the refusal to accept or grapple with and integrate the evidence.

    I believe you may be subject to the same attitude I tried to describe, namely that your position is right, so the outcome of any discussion should be that the animal rights activists convert to your view.

    Not one bit. Part of why I bother to engage on this issue on Scienceblogs is that I am always looking for new evidence and arguments which can inform my position on the use of animals in research. At this moment in time, yes I feel that my position in support of animal research is correct. This does not mean that I am not open to evidence or rationale. I am just not open to disingenuous or faith-based arguments, the latter are just as silly as someone telling me at my front door that I should join their church, just because they believe.

    I do enjoy discussions of ethics, detached from theological beliefs although I will admit to a very simplistic orientation and not much education in formal ethical thought (which is why I read Janet’s stuff, of course). One thing that seems an overwhelming a priori in this area is consistency. So when the argument goes in that direction, I want to see people take it down to a full and binding commitment to the cause, so to speak. A refusal to take advantage or benefit in any way from the outcomes of prior or ongoing animal research. When I start hearing a lot of hemming and hawing around this, I smell a rat. (so to speak)

    Any discussion is pointless if neither side can even conceive of compromise.

    I particularly object to this line of argument. It presupposes that there has not already been compromise. This turns into a completely bogus way to move the argument center toward one side or the other. The proper scope of discussion ranges from “no use of animals in research ever” to “any person can do whatever s/he wants any time to any species with no regard for any rule or regulation”. The current place that researchers operate from is a compromise already. That most current researchers affirm this compromise and have no need or desire to move significantly in the whatever/wherever direction does not change the fact that their position is already the compromise position.

  7. #7 Lab Lemming
    October 30, 2008

    Isn’t asking researchers to talk to these activists kind of like asking gynecologists to do Q&A with the placarde wavers outside the clinic?

    Or like asking the President of Israel to fly to Tehran and take questions from the Revolutionary guard?

    Or like having Barak Obama attend a clan meeting to dialogue about why they object to his presidency?

    You see, it is possible that all of those groups contain thoughtful moderates who really just want to discuss their philosophy with the people who’s careers they want to disrupt.

  8. #8 Pat Cahalan
    October 30, 2008

    > Isn’t asking researchers to talk to these activists
    > kind of like asking to talk to ?

    If you don’t work at establishing trust and a common context, you can’t resolve a conflict through rational debate and dialogue. You can only resolve it by coercion or by waiting for the opposing side to die. Neither is a very constructive approach.

  9. #9 Mark P
    October 30, 2008

    ” … a contention by anyone that they are any less biased than anyone else is insupportable.”
    Clinton, that is simply not true, and I doubt you really believe that. Also, you seem to use “bogus” a lot, and it isn’t really very well defined. Maybe you can explain why it’s bogus to ask people to think about how they argue (let’s say “debate”) as well as how they feel about a subject.

    “That most current researchers affirm this compromise and have no need or desire to move significantly in the whatever/wherever direction …”

    So, the debate is over. Let’s move on to the next topic.

  10. #10 Lab Lemming
    October 30, 2008

    >If you don’t work at establishing trust and a common context, you can’t resolve a conflict through rational debate and dialogue.

    Yes, but if the opposition’s POV is that you shouldn’t exist, what common context are you trying to achieve?

  11. #11 Pat Cahalan
    October 31, 2008

    @ Lemming

    > Yes, but if the opposition’s POV is that you
    > shouldn’t exist, what common context are you
    > trying to achieve?

    You’re over-estimating the monolithic nature of the opposition :)

    Lots of people oppose animal research for lots of different reasons (full disclosure: I’m generally for animal research myself). Certainly a core group of these people are ones who are incapable of rational discourse. The remainder of them are probably capable of entering into a dialogue. Of those, some are certainly not going to come around to your point of view, but honest and open dialogue can establish a level of trust that makes them comfortable with “agreeing to disagree”, and some are certainly open to convincing with your position.

    But if you don’t work at establishing trust, if you belittle or discount or ignore those who don’t think as you do, you enable the erosion of common context, which makes it that much easier for someone on the other side to build higher barriers to trust, and move more of the opposition into the dogmatic category.

  12. #12 Lab Lemming
    November 2, 2008

    No.
    If a person or group thinks they have a more humane way of doing animal research, it is incumbent on them to set up a facility and do it- or put mechanisms in place so that it can be done how they like.

    It is not ethical to demand other people to labor to address your concerns.

  13. #13 think
    November 15, 2008

    “It is not ethical to demand other people to labor to address your concerns.”

    Huh? The above shows a really high IQ, almost fruit-fly like, or at least fruit-like.

    Some animal research is likely necessary. Any animal research that causes discomfort to animals is MOST regrettable (tho not always avoidable) and it is incumbent on the researcher to make it as humane as possible.