Adventures in Ethics and Science

Today we continue our look at the reasons that attempts to have a dialogue about the use of animals in scientific research routinely run aground.

Dialogue, you’ll remember, involves the participants in the dialogue offering not just their views but also something like their reasons for holding those views. In addition, in a real dialogue, participants engage seriously with each other’s positions. Serious engagement doesn’t necessitate that one of the positions on offer ends up persuading everyone in the dialogue, but everyone is supposed to be open to considering each view — and open to critically examining one’s own view. A dialogue is not a high school debate where the point is for your side to win. Instead, “winning” here is really understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the competing view, and ideally, all of the dialogue’s participants can achieve this sort of win.

Research with animals seems to be a topic of discussion especially well-suited to shouting matches and disengagement. Understanding the reasons this is so might clear a path to make dialogue possible. Yesterday, we discussed problems that arise when people in a discussion start with the assumption that the other guy is arguing in bad faith. If we can get past this presumptive mistrust of the other parties in the discussion, another significant impediment rears its head pretty quickly:

Substantial disagreement about the facts.

Trying to get people to accept (or even seriously consider) your conclusion, no matter what that conclusion might be, is a lot harder if those people do not accept your premises. In discussions (or shouting matches) around animal rights, animal welfare, and the use of animals in research, there are plenty of premises that are hotly disputed by participants. Thus, I’m going to focus on three types of facts that are usually points of contention and give them each a post of their own. In the next post, I’ll discuss contention about what animal welfare regulations allow or require. In the post after that (part 4 of the series), I’ll take up disagreements around the facts as far as animal discomfort, distress, pain, or torture when animals are used in scientific research. We will start, though, by considering a pretty basic clump of claims over which various sides have trouble agreeing to the same facts:

Is animal research necessary or unnecessary for scientific and medical advancement?

Arguments against animal research frequently include claims that there are serious limits to what we can learn from an animal model, especially if the goal is to build good knowledge about humans. To understand, say, a disease and its treatment in humans, you would want to use an experimental model as much like a human as possible — and obviously, non-human animals are a lot less like humans than humans are. This kind of claim is frequently bolstered with examples of data generated from animal studies that didn’t make good predictions about what would happen with humans (e.g., compounds that didn’t demonstrate toxicity or dangerous side effects in animals that ended up being toxic to humans or causing dangerous side effects in them).

If the goal is to answer questions about humans, the best system to study would be humans. (There are regulatory hurdles to this, which we’ll note in the next post.) And, if you can’t study humans directly, then alternatives to animal experimentation, such as in vitro experiments (with cell cultures, for example) or computer simulations, ought to produce data at least as meaningful as animal experimentation.

On the other side, supporters of animal research assert that while non-human animals are different from humans in important respects, they also have enough similarities that data from animal research can be applied meaningfully to questions about humans.

They argue that while tissue culture models can help isolate some important features of biological systems, they can never fully replicate the complexity of the whole living animal in its operation. For example, sulfonamide drugs, when tested on bacteria grown on agar plates, showed no effect. However, used to treat bacterial infections in mice, the same drugs were effective in killing the bacteria — as it turns out, the “active ingredient” is formed within the body when the drug is administered. (Animal research advocates also point out that in vitro work is not entirely animal-free, since many growth factors used for tissue culture work have animal sources.)

Of course, tissue culture work would be no kind of replacement for live animals in areas of research aimed at understanding animal behavior.

And, supporters of animal research note that computer simulations are severely limited as far as building our understanding of phenomena we do not fully grasp yet. On this particular point, Mark Chu-Carroll provides the must-read post. I’ll quote him briefly, but you should really read the whole thing:

[L]ike any other computer program, a simulation can only do what you tell it to. If you don’t already know how something works, you can’t simulate it. If you think you know how something works but you made a tiny, miniscule error, then the simulation can diverge dramatically from reality.

On the question of whether scientific ends can be accomplished by other means than animal research, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that scientists have more accurate information than non-scientists (and that those in the biological sciences have more accurate information than, say, those working in the physical sciences). It is true that there is some amount of uncertainty about what methods are necessary to build new knowledge and where our next discovery will come from — you can’t safely predict how you’re going to find out what you don’t yet know. However, for any knowledge claim that scientists want to make about the workings of living organisms, they will need to validate their findings from other systems (whether idealizations instantiated in computer simulations or in vitro models) with experiments on the organisms to which they think these findings apply.

The disputed facts around whether scientists really need to do animal research to answer the questions they’re trying to answer block dialogue in an interesting way. We have more than just a place where the parties can’t reason together because one side holds that P while the other side holds that not-P. As well, we have the folks with the more immediate knowledge of what’s scientifically do-able and what’s inferentially useful utterly aghast at the ignorance of the other side. (“You think we could do what with computer simulations?! Do you think we have magic powers?”)

Meanwhile, at least some of the people who come to the table believing it might be possible to replace experimental animal use with computer simulations and tissue culture experiments have this hunch that scientists could get the data they want from non-animal sources, if only they tried (because scientists are really clever about finding new ways to build good knowledge). So possibly the scientists aren’t examining this possibility out of stubbornness — or because they’re so impatient for the new knowledge that they haven’t stopped to consider the welfare of the animals being used to generate it.

The trouble is, if the supporters of animal research shoot down the claim that animal use could be completely replaced with in vitro studies and computer models without explaining why these options couldn’t fully do the job, then the people arguing that animal research is unnecessary because such alternatives exist won’t understand what’s wrong with their premise. If the different sides won’t even articulate what they think is wrong with each other’s premises, dialogue hits an impasse.

(Possibly scientists assume that the claim that animal use is fully replaceable by alternatives arises from willful ignorance, or that this claim is offered despite the fact that it is known to be false. Possibly those arguing for full replacement of animal use on these grounds think about the same thing about the supporters of animal research. Again, if you’re certain that your opponent is arguing in bad faith, you can’t have a dialogue.)

Now, even if all the parties accept the same set of facts about the limitations of computer simulations, in vitro experimentation, and in vivo experimentation, there is another substantial disagreement about the necessity of animal experimentation that can get in the way of dialogue — namely, what counts as necessary. Necessity is relative to specific goals — how many mice you need to use to produce data with a certain statistical power, what experimental tools you need to use to understand the workings of a particular biological system, what we might need to do to understand drug addiction, to cure cancer, or to extend the average human life expectancy to 150.

Even if everyone agrees on factual claims relative to a particular goal, it is possible for people to disagree on whether a particular goal is worth pursuing, or whether that goal ought to be prioritized above other goals. This is to say, some of the claims that medical science does not need to continue conducting research with animals may really rest on the implicit premise that the current state of our medical knowledge is adequate, or that further medical advances would be desirable, but not at the cost of other things we value (like the well-being of animals). While scientists are likely to have a better idea of what various experimental and analytical approaches to scientific problems might accomplish, scientists cannot assume that everyone else will share their views as far as what priority to give the creation of new scientific knowledge relative to the other things we might value. Opponents of animal research cannot assume that others share their values and priorities, either. A real dialogue, however, will make the values and priorities visible and explore their role in the disagreement.

Making premises explicit, and taking care to distinguish between wants and needs, could be helpful in illuminating where we disagree about premises and what exactly we’re disagreeing about. Those making claims about what is possible probably have a duty to track down good information bearing on those claims; those disputing claims on the basis of what they take to be good information probably have a duty to share that information.

Tomorrow, we’ll take up another substantial disagreement about facts, the matter of how scientists are allowed to treat animals in their quest for new knowledge.


  1. #1 --bill
    April 19, 2009

    “Is animal research necessary or unnecessary for scientific and medical advancement?”

    Obviously not. One doesn’t need to do animal research to study black holes, for example. By opening your post with an obviously false yet emotionally appealing false dichotomy (`if we stop animal research, might that stop scientific and medical advancement?’) colors everthing that follows. The question isn’t whether `animal research is necessary or unnecessary for scientific and medical advancement’, but rather `is animal research necessary to achieve this specific research goal?’ One cannot rationally argue that `scientific and medical advancement’ hinges upon animal research. And once the question becomes `is animal research necessary to achieve this specific research goal?’, one must consider why and how `research goals’ are chosen. If one subscribes to a Kuhnian view of science, for example, one would argue that the current medical research paradigm includes animal testing, and so animal testing is part of the `normal science’ of medical research. This implies that many research goals will be conceived of in terms of animal testing, and that many researchers are emotionally invested (due to the time, effort and sacrifices that they have sunk into mastering the techniques of their `normal science’) in defending animal testing, and that these scientists will have difficulty rationally engaging in the debate, in part because they do not understand why they themselves are so wedded to animal testing.

    This entire post assumes that the debate should be carried out in terms of techniques of science, and not about underlying mechanisms of how medical researchers choose their research goals.

    And also: “scientists cannot assume that everyone else will share their views as far as what priority to give the creation of new scientific knowledge relative to the other things we might value.” This assumes that `new scientific knowledge’ is independent of the mechanisms of how scientists choose which new scientific knowledge to try to create.

  2. #2 Lijing
    April 19, 2009

    The author’s wording of the question already considered the points bill tried to make. It may not be very fair to judge a question framing through a title, especially when the title is actually fine, considering the fact that not even one theoretical or experiment setting can cover all the scientific and medical advancement.

    If we should consider the “underlying mechanisms of how scientists choose their research goals” in this dialogue, according to bill, shouldn’t we also consider underlying “mechanisms” why some people rush to a conclusion about science and try to advise science without firstly consulting about the basics in science? Some topics are not beneficial to encourage an authentic dialogue, which the author cares about, and are just not the most important ones.

  3. #3 becca
    April 20, 2009

    I think –bill brings up a valid point about the Kuhnian progress in science. It can be frustratingly slow to convince scientists in a manner that does not fit with ‘normal science’. The specific case that comes to my mind is the connection between H. pylori and stomach ulcers, and the corresponding difficulties of satisfying Koch’s postulates (due, in part, to the lack of a satisfactory animal model). (in that case, convincing the scientific establishment probably took so long because both the basic idea and the methods of demonstrating it were so far removed from ‘normal science’)

    I think scientists have to be able to explain not only how their methods are necessary to obtain the data they want, but also why they want the particular data they do. In theory, this would be in every grant application anyway. In reality, many of the justifications I’ve seen in actual grants for the use of a particular animal model sound to me more or less like “this is the appropriate model because we’ve always used this model” (which, in fairness, might actually be an adequate justification for the experts reviewing the grant who have already searched for a better model; but it would sometimes be nice to have something a bit more accessibly logical for general audiences).

  4. #4 Cleveland
    April 20, 2009

    I think scientists have to be able to explain not only how their methods are necessary to obtain the data they want, but also why they want the particular data they do.

    and I think that all concern trolls should have to identify what is actually deficient in scientific justifications, explain what justifications would actually satisfy them, explain why certain data is not of interest to them or society, and when criticizing existing methode actually provide some reality based rationale for how alternatives are supposed to work.

  5. #5 Pat Cahalan
    April 21, 2009

    @ becca

    > I think scientists have to be able to explain not
    > only how their methods are necessary to obtain
    > the data they want, but also why they want the
    > particular data they do.

    What if they don’t know?

    To some extent, there a different phases of scientific exploration: examining the models we have (to extend them), verifying a theory based upon an existing model, and attempting to reveal as yet undiscovered observations.

    In the first and second case, I may or may not be able to explain why I want the particular data; more to the point, I may be able to explain why I want the particular data to someone else who is familiar with the problem domain, but it might be very difficult to explain it to someone else (and it might be downright impossible if my explanation has to hit moving goalposts, which may very well be the case if the person listening to my explanation has an agenda that would lead them to say, “That’s not enough justification, I need more.”)

    … and of course, in the third case, the answer literally might be, “I don’t know. I suspect there is something new to see via this experimentation, but it may turn out that there’s nothing new at all.”

  6. #6 becca
    April 21, 2009

    Pat Cahalan- I hear you.
    I’ve heard some talk of massive mouse gene knockout projects, that are designed more or less along the lines of “let’s knockout everything* and see what happens!” (which did seem to work for the yeast people, afterall).
    My personal reaction to this type of project is somewhat conflicted. I simultaneously think “oh that would be great data to have!” (cool geekout response) and “maybe there’s a better use of the massive resources this requires” (practical response).
    But I am also conflicted on this particular project because the number of mice required is staggering. I think that factor alone should give people a little bit of pause, and that we as scientists should at least think about what we hope to discover that would be ‘worth’ it (personally, the only thing that got me through some of the diabetic retinopathy work I did was imagining a giant pile of dead rat carcasses on one side of the scale, and my mother having her vision restored on the other [note that this is in no way intended as a logical point, just a personal reflection]).
    That said, part of your response concerns me. You seem to be saying that it’s impossible to explain why something is important to someone who isn’t inclined to accept your standard of “important”.
    I think you are conflating “explaining why something is important” with “convincing somebody that something is important”.
    Have you read the whole series of Janet’s posts? It’s not always necessary to convince someone to have a productive dialogue with them. I feel that, ideally, you should still do your best to have a lay-audience-intelligible justification for your research. It’s about optimizing the productivity of the dialogue as best you can (you have relatively little control over whether the other person will come into the dialogue prepared be equivalently accommodating).

    *note: I don’t know if the actual plans involve knocking out “everything”, but they assuredly involved knocking out things with very little evidence that they’d produce a particular phenotype.

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