Adventures in Ethics and Science

Dialogue, not debate.

At the end of last week, I made a quick trip to UCLA to visit with some researchers who, despite having been targets of violence and intimidation, are looking for ways to engage with the public about research with animals. I was really struck by their seriousness about engaging folks on “the other side”, rather than just hunkering down to their research and hoping to be left alone.

The big thing we talked about was the need to shift the terms of engagement.

The mode people seem most used to — and the one that seems to make the least difference — is the debate. In a debate, the point is to win. Your aim is to score points, whether positive points for your position or negative points against your opponent. This can have the effect of reducing an exchange to dueling talking-points, my factual claim against your criticism of the source and reliability of that factual claim, and so forth. No one ends up knowing much more than they did when they came to the debate, and none of the participants’ minds are likely to change.

I would argue that a better way to engage would be in a dialogue. Rather than setting the participants up as opponents in a point-scoring game, a dialogue makes participants partners in the project of understanding each other (and themselves) better. Dialogue lets you hear what issues are really important to the participants. It lets you explore the reasons they are concerned by various courses of action. It opens up the possibility of finding shared commitments and common ground. It won’t magically resolve all conflicts, but holds out some chance of letting all the participants see what the conflicts are really about.

And, dialogue seems like it could lead to such improved understanding, and even to commitments to find ways to work with each other, without bludgeoning anyone either figuratively or literally.

Now, for these researchers at UCLA — and for the scientific community more generally — the challenge will be to figure out how to cultivate a culture of dialogue. Getting the public thinking and talking with scientists about animal research isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to relegate to one or two public events. Rather, ideally, it should become a normal part of how scientists and non-scientists live together in the same society. Talking to each other and listening to each other is bound to make that coexistence more harmonious.

In addition to lots of one-on-one discussion during my visit, I also gave a brief talk. Because I was asked to, I’m posting the slides. Here’s the Powerpoint file, and below you should be able to watch the slideshow without having to download it.

I didn’t sync in any audio, but if you read my series in April on impediments to dialogue about animal research (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) you can probably fill in a good guess about what I might have said as these slides were projected.


  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    September 28, 2009

    This is fantastic. Thanks for taking the time and effort to speak with scientists who are under attack. I have little doubt that your thinking on these issues gives them new tools to think about their own activities and to design strategies for outreach. I commend you for going and the UCLA scientists for inviting you.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    September 28, 2009

    Does the “e” in San Jose really have an accent thingie above it, or are you just fucking around?

  3. #3 dave c-h
    September 28, 2009

    Is there an ethical point at which engagement is functionally equivalent to assent. In other words, is there a point at which dialogue should be replaced by active resistance? If so, how do you tell where that point is? I think many activists fear that dialogue is a tactic of those who support the status quo to co-opt them into a process that is unlikely to lead to any real change because the power is unevenly divided.

  4. #4 Catharine
    September 28, 2009

    Excellent, excellent and excellent. The ever-expanding fields of scientific/medical research (especially as the lines blur, as in synthetic biology) raise more and more ethical questions. The ethical questions certainly do not “belong” to the researchers. This is why I believe the role of science and investigative science journalism is more important than ever (see Bora’s post). Now, more than ever, we need an informed, scientifically literate citizenry. And everyone, including religious people and animal rights advocates (regardless of my own personal distaste for them) deserve a spot at the table. Debate gets us nowhere, fast. Dialogue is our only hope for finding some common ground.

  5. #5 David Jentsch
    September 28, 2009

    THANK YOU for visiting with us, sharing your insights and wit and contributing to something which is far from an academic issue.

    I would like to underscore our commitment to developing a “culture” (to borrow your word) of dialogue and a healthy relationship with truth and civility. We met with our counterparts today, and I can say that the two sides agree on the need to establish a clear and articulate exchange on these matters. We discussed very specific points you raised, like the need to establish a way to talk despite confusion about what the real facts are, to identify trustworthy discussion partners and to go beyond scoring points with sound bites and quick jabs.

    Now, this commitment needs to spread to other locations… to go “viral” (in webspeak)…

    Perhaps a healthy exchange can prevent antagonism and violence, rather than merely end it. I certainly wish we had started this process before the beginning of the violence. I urge scientists and researchers around the country to take that first step… Make contact with groups with whom you think you can dialogue, take that first step by meeting with them and initiate a back and forth on important questions that both sides have.

  6. #6 Dario Ringach
    September 29, 2009

    Dear Janet,

    Thank you again for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. Indeed, we wasted no time in taking your advise and, as David reports, we had a very productive meeting today with “the other side”. We are very hopeful this will lead to active and open dialogue here soon… a dialogue that may help create an atmosphere where everyone can present their views without the fear of violence and threats… a dialogue that will be mimicked at other locations… a dialogue that may set the stage for a wider, national conversation on the use of animals in research.

    Thank you very much again for getting us going in a promising direction.

  7. #7 Dario Ringach
    September 29, 2009

    @Comrade PhysioProf – Yes, in “José” the last syllable is stressed and it also ends in a vowel, which demands an acute accent. A rule is a rule.

  8. #8 Jason Major
    September 30, 2009

    Good to see someone is having a go at open dialogue in this area. A few ywars ago, when I was the science journalist at the University of Melbourne, I tried to get the Uni interested in having an open day at some of their animal reseaerch facilities – at a time when anti-vivisection groups were geting a bit of press. My argument was that it would allow people to see the reality of animal research – allow questions, discussion – dialogue. It was made clear that this was not a PR event to try and win people over, but an opportunity to be open and honest about this sort of research. The outcome was meant to be unknown, except maybe less suspicion, more trust in the info/research/science – whether they agreed with what was happening or not was irrelevant. The Uni didn’t want to touch the idea out of fear of what people might think. Your readers might be interested in a new report from the DEEPEN project on the need to find mechanisms to engage the public in guiding the direction of scientific research. I haven’t read past the exec sumary and intro yet, but it suggests we need to rethink many aspects of public engagement, of which how the science is done woudl be a part. There are links to it in my blog – Or Google DEEPEN (at Durham Uni- UK)

    Jason Major
    Gene and NanoTechnology Information Service

  9. #9 Sandlin
    February 18, 2010

    Thank you for posting this! I am a graduate student in biology working to develop a seminar on integrity and ethics for undergrads. I am also a longtime admirer of your blog.

    There are so many ripe topics in our field that faculty prefer not to address directly, that in my view, leaves students with significant gaps when they go out into the world as citizens. Vivisection is a great example where a compromise has been made by both sides, but there is still an important need for dialogue. I am intimidated by the format, but really committed to demanding a high quality of dialogue that is both fact based and civil. I’ve been worried about how to explain this to students, to avoid anyone becoming overly enraged. Your slide show will help me a LOT. Thank you!