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.