Adventures in Ethics and Science

I don’t usually go looking for a fight, but there are some cases where I’ll make an exception.

You know, of course that I’m a big fan of DonorsChoose. And you’ll recall that PETA’s tactics make them a problematic organization as far as I’m concerned regardless of what your views on animal welfare or animal rights might be.

So, when PETA takes a swing at DonorsChoose, of course I want to jump in off the ropes and swing back. What’s PETA’s issue with DonorsChoose?

DonorsChoose.org is a nonprofit organization with a noble mission – to help teachers purchase materials for classroom lessons. But despite multiple discussions with PETA about modern, cruelty-free alternatives, the organization has made it clear that it will continue to promote and distribute dissection materials. PETA has shown DonorsChoose.org that virtual dissection models and computer programs are effective–and cost-effective–but DonorsChoose.org insists on peddling outdated and inhumane animal-based “materials.”

Please take a few minutes to send Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org, a polite e-mail urging him to support only 3-D anatomical models and virtual dissection programs.

[T]he following are some talking points that you might want to include: 


  • Dissection teaches students that animals are no more than classroom tools–like pencils or notebooks–to be used and discarded. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has stated that his fascination with cutting apart bodies started with classroom dissection.
  • Students deserve modern teaching methods, including computers, observation of nature, and sophisticated models, not a dead frog or cat on a slab.
  • Teachers in need of funding–like those that use DonorsChoose.org–deserve the most cost-effective materials possible, like computer programs or models that will last year after year, instead of dead animals who must be thrown away and replaced after one use.
  • Animals used for dissection come from biological-supply companies, and many are caught in the wild. Some are even stolen or abandoned companion animals.

Where even to begin?

First off, DonorsChoose works to supply teachers with the classroom supplies that the teachers request. It is the teachers, not DonorsChoose, who have identified these materials as pedagogically necessary for their students — and if you read the teachers’ proposals, you’ll see that these decisions are usually tied quite closely to state science standards, or to what learning experiences teachers have found make a difference in preparing their students for college or careers.

In other words, teachers are not asking for virtual dissection programs or 3-D anatomical models and then being told by DonorsChoose, “Sorry, it’s dead animals or nothing.” They are asking for the classroom supplies they need, and DonorsChoose is helping them get those supplies.

(Indeed, there are teacher proposals for 3-D models and for virtual dissection software. But these don’t meet the needs of every teacher or every classroom. It may even be the case that the teachers whose proposals include 3-D models or virtual dissection software are requesting them to supplement dissection.)

On to the PETA-supplied talking points.

Computers and sophisticated models may count as “modern teaching methods”, and they may provide a valuable supplement to “traditional” teaching methods, but that doesn’t mean that they can necessarily completely replace traditional teaching methods like dissection. Models and computer programs, like the detailed anatomical diagrams of yore, tend to convey the idealized picture of anatomy. Opening up an actual frog, or shark, or earthworm, or cat, you see variation you couldn’t even imagine from the diagrams or models. If the point is to understand the workings of actual organisms, not just idealized ones, this is really important.

Similarly, computers and models may be “cost effective” by virtue of being reusable, but that doesn’t mean that they are by themselves fully effective in teaching students what they might learn by doing dissections. And saying “teachers in need of funding deserve the most cost-effective materials possible” sounds, to my ear, a lot like saying that teachers in poorer school districts ought to make due with the materials with the lowest cost-per-year, rather than being provided with supplies that might cost more and teach more, too. After all, the teachers in richer districts are likely to have a lot less problem coming up with dissection kits and specimens. Their students aren’t going to miss out on this standard feature of high school biology for the college-bound.

It angers me that we’d treat kids in poorer districts as less worthy of the materials needed to give them a fully adequate biology course.

Animal supply companies, of course, are regulated under federal law. Stealing companion animals, for whatever purpose, is already illegal. And if we’re talking about the fate of companion animals, why not start with PETA’s own policy of euthanizing most of the companion animals surrendered to their “shelters”. But those euthanized animals are more likely to end up in dumpsters than in a classroom where students might learn something from them.

Finally, I daresay that for many students, dissection teaches that animal anatomy is exquisite and fascinating, and that creatures with remarkably different exteriors have recognizably similar skeletal, muscular, and organ systems. The lesson is that animals are more complicated than mere “things”.

Generalizing from a particular serial killer who claimed that dissection set him to homicidal cutting up of bodies is, frankly, ridiculous. For every Dahmer, how many future physicians (and veterinarians) got their first sense of the handskills their profession would require from a high school dissection? I’m betting quite a few.

In other words, PETA seems to get it completely wrong here.

For many of you, I’m sure that’s not at all surprising. But the point I want to underline is that PETA is urging their substantial membership to give DonorsChoose a hard time about this. DonorsChoose, meanwhile, is working hard to give cash-strapped teachers the very supplies that those cash-strapped teachers are asking for to teach their students what they need to know.

If you think PETA is wrong on this one, you might put your money where your mouth is and consider helping to fund one of the dissection proposals in my challenge.

Comments

  1. #1 DC Teacher
    October 1, 2009

    Actually, as a teacher in a struggling inner-city DC punblic school myself, it is very hard to stipulate what you want specifically- the way it usually works is that DonorsChoose DO in fact only restrict you to certain lists of equipment from certain vendors- you CANNOT ask for anything but have to settle for what THEY decide you should be able to “bid” for- for example, they do offer some materials from one of the leading science vendors, Bioquip, but when you want to specify top quality or discipline-specific materials, although on the Bioquip catalogue, DonorsChoose only have “deals” for the items you usually don’t want to waste money on…!

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    October 1, 2009

    DC Teacher, this is obviously an issue worth pursuing with the team at DonorsChoose. If there are good pedagogical reasons to get item X rather than item Y, a good deal from a preferred vendor shouldn’t trump that.

    In any case, it is manifestly false that DonorsChoose restricts teachers to animal dissection specimens and equipment if they’re requesting anatomical models or “virtual dissection” software; there are plenty of project proposals on the site that request funds for such models or software.

  3. #3 Ian
    October 1, 2009

    I dissected a fetal pig in high school 8 years ago and still remember it quite clearly. The liver, the kidneys, everything stuck together with fat. Everything we know about how people learn tells us that doing something novel like cutting into a formaldehyde-stinking pig is much more educational then looking at computer screen yet again. Until we get those cortical implants, computers can’t replace reality.

  4. #4 Dario Ringach
    October 1, 2009

    Not surprising. From school dissections to the training of trauma doctors in the ER, PeTA is pushing for the replacement of animals with computer simulations and/or mannequins. Good luck in your next emergency intubation if your doctor was trained exclusively on plastic.

  5. #5 Jon Saulnier
    October 1, 2009

    Could we, perhaps, meet both sides on this issue and urge PETA members to volunteer their bodies for science? That would lower the cost of human cadavers which, I assume, would be the most useful when it comes to gleaning knowledge from dissection and it would remove any ethical problems of consent on the part of the specimen.

  6. #6 bill
    October 1, 2009

    It took some finding, but here is a list of vendors and some further information about these restrictions:

    http://www.donorschoose.org/help/popup_faq.html?name=tlpvendors

    I’m not sure what the point of the vendor restrictions is… the word “kickbacks” does spring to mind.

  7. #7 Elf Eye
    October 2, 2009

    Following the links from the list of vendors leads to information about procedures for ordering equipment and materials not available from any of the thirty-three “Express” vendors. To submit such “Special Requests,” the instructor has to have accumulated a certain number of points, which are accrued by adhering to guidelines requiring, for example, timely responses to notifications of grants and follow-through on sending thank-yous to donors.

    There is nothing nefarious about having a list of ‘express’ vendors. Having established relationships with certain vendors does save time, which translates into saving money (staff must be paid to process requests). Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the organization has negotiated discounts with these vendors.

  8. #8 Vince Whirlwind
    October 2, 2009

    PETA suck.
    They are a bunch of evil fundamentalist loonies who have not a shred of empathy for human suffering or credibility.

  9. #9 Phillip
    October 2, 2009

    At the onset, I would like to say I do not agree with PETAs statements but I do understand them. While I notice there is a fair amount of hyperbole in their talking points I think requesting their membership base to exert pressure on DonorChoose is a rather moderate approach to what they perceive as a dilemma.

    I just finished reading the “Rights of Nature” by Roderick Nash. It is a history of environmentalism that spans the subjects of law to religion. He spends some time on the topic of animal rights and the various philosophies that have sprouted over time. I do not agree with many of the findings of organizations that preach animal rights concepts but I must say some of the logic can be compelling. Much of the logic is an understandable extension of modern ecology and ethics (Nash would say liberalism).

    I agree that they lack any credibility with the comparison to Dahmer. It sets up their audience for an emotional reaction rather than rational or critical analysis. (Many environmental groups set up their campaigns on similarly weak foundations). But I must say if you are going to call them out on that then you should avoid distractions in your own arguments, like the red herring about their policy on euthanasia. May be a worthy issue but is not pertinent to the discussion at hand.

    I think you miss an important point yourself in your post. PETAs arguments are primarily ethical in origins, it is the foundation of animal rights. Their talking points are an attempt at explaining the practical benefits of alternatives to dissection (at which they lack much credibility it seems) to support the changes they desire. But ultimately it boils down to the fact that they disapprove of dissection from a moral ground. Their talking points are just the common ground and compromises they are trying to find with DonorChoose. From what I know, the educational merits that you describe for dissection are secondary to the rights of the animals being harvested for science. It is most blatant in the statement about animals being taken from the “wild.” This is the realm of subjectivity and they would likely have a plethora of counterpoints to your own.

    I must admit, I hadn’t distinguished the element of “idealized” anatomy in technology to the variations seen in true samples. That was a very effective argument for me and cemented the idea that computer models are truly supplementary versus complete in education abilities. I have seen that in practice at the university level but never thought about the rationalization.

    I find it a shame that so many of these discussion digress to insults and talking over each other. There is a way to dissent and articulate differences without succumbing to incivility (the comments section, not your post). In this case, we have two parties with diverging priorities and like ethics. Nothing wrong with that. Educate and rally ones base to action.

    I hope you are successful at raising awareness about PETAs campaign and fundraising your proposals.

  10. #10 Rebecca
    October 2, 2009

    PETA do indeed suck

    I blogged on another PETA issue earlier this year:

    http://rebeccas-opinions.blogspot.com/2009/08/peta-annoy-me.html

  11. #11 Oaul Browne
    October 2, 2009

    An excellent post Janet! I might fire off an e-mail to Charles Best myself to remind him that there are many of us who support the provision of an full range of education materials for biology class.

    As Ian pointed out above actually exploring the real innards of an animal (or plant) is far more interesting to most schoolchildren than staring at another computer screen, and a major role of education is not just to teach facts but to stimulate an interest in the subject in question and in learning in general.

  12. #12 Paul Browne
    October 2, 2009

    On second thoughts forget about the e-mail to Charles Best, by now he probably just bins any on this subject anyway. I’ll just make a couple of donations to dissection projects instead, that’s a far better way to show support for these classes.

    Thanks for the reminder PeTA!

  13. #13 Jacquie Calnan
    October 2, 2009

    This is another manifestation of PETA using charities to advance its anti-science agenda. Believe it or not, PETA tells its followers NOT to donate to some 70+ charities that fund animal-based research – including the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Susan Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Christopher & Dana Reeve Paralysis Foundation…and on and on. Each spring they hold protests targeting volunteers conducting Walkathons for the March of Dimes – which PETA calls ‘March of Crimes.’ PETA’s shameless!

  14. #14 jc
    October 2, 2009

    “PETA seems to get it completely wrong here”
    Shocking.

    PETA has a campaign running where they dress up fish like cute little kittehs in tiaras and makeup to prevent fishing. *cue the underwater clown music*
    http://www.peta.org/sea_kittens/game.asp

  15. #15 Cherish
    October 2, 2009

    Dissection taught me to important things:

    1 – When dissecting a frog, I found some sort of vestigial organ that was no where on any of the diagrams I’d seen. I’d hate to be a doctor opening up a person and be surprised that things were out of place because I’d never seen a real human.

    2 – It made me realize I haven’t the stomach for any of the biological or medical sciences. I’m glad I dissecting animals because it made me realize I never want to do it again. Again, I’d hate to have a doctor work all his or her life on models and then get into a real-life situation only to find out they couldn’t stomach it.

  16. #16 Paul Browne
    October 2, 2009

    Janet “Generalizing from a particular serial killer who claimed that dissection set him to homicidal cutting up of bodies is, frankly, ridiculous. For every Dahmer, how many future physicians (and veterinarians) got their first sense of the handskills their profession would require from a high school dissection? I’m betting quite a few.”

    I’m actually quite glad that they included the bit on Dahmer. I was a little worried that Charles Best might take PeTA seriously, after all he might not know much about the usefulness of dissection classes, but when I saw that remark I was reassured that he will see the PeTA e-mails for the bollocks they are. The fact that there is clearly a demand for dissection from class and teachers and support for these projects among donors should do the rest.

    After all isn’t the whole point that the donors get to choose which projects to support?

  17. #17 Davis
    October 2, 2009

    Though it was 15 years ago, I still have vivid memories of my frog dissection experience in high school biology (it wasn’t part of the normal class curriculum, so I had to go in outside of class to do it). Cutting open my frog, I was surprised to found a mass of eggs inside in addition to the usual organs. I had unintentionally cut open the egg sac so that the eggs got everywhere, making the work more difficult.

    The whole experience was a fantastic illustration of how things are not always so smooth and clean-cut in the lab, and a good opportunity to learn to improvise around unexpected difficulties. Good luck replicating that with current technology.

  18. #18 Phillip
    October 2, 2009

    Jacquie,

    How exactly is PETA anti-science? I ask for two reasons. First, I have a very explicit definition of the concept of anti-science. Second, I fear if we as a scientific community overuse this concept is devalues its worth.

    In this case, I see PETA simply trying to encourage alternate means to high school dissection. They are advocating a change in technique, not challenging the means of the scientific method or the value of scientific knowledge.

  19. #19 Pete
    October 2, 2009

    After scanning the comments, Janet, I fear that “Phillip” may well be the only intelligent person capable of articulating a non-jingoist thought who bothers to read your blog!

  20. #20 Wyomingite
    October 2, 2009

    My mom home schooled my oldest brother for a year when his school was closed. One of my earliest memories is watching my brother dissect a frog on the kitchen table. I learned so much then and I learned so much in high school when we dissected lamb and cow kidneys and went to the local junior college to dissect a bobcat. I learned so much from these dissections that I cannot imagine learning as much from some computer simulation. Dr. Stemwedel is right on target in her assessment.

  21. #21 Katie Drummond
    October 2, 2009

    Virtual dissection aside, let’s look at PETA’s own track record regarding animal treatment before we even comment on whether they ought to be pushing the abolishing of in-school dissection.

    As I’ve written on my own site(link below)PETA is responsible for a 98% kill rate of their OWN sheltered animals. That’s right: an organization with a $32 million dollar budget is unable to adopt out the domestic animals they receive from former human owners. In comparison, the SPCA in PETA’s district adopts out 70 percent.

    In other words, I think PETA’s got some questions to answer about their own animal abuse before they start criticizing the education of America’s youth.

    http://trueslant.com/katiedrummond/2009/10/02/peta-anti-peta-animal-rights

  22. #22 Dario Ringach
    October 3, 2009

    Philip asks,

    “How exactly is PETA anti-science?”

    From their web-site:

    “Today’s non-animal research methods are humane, more accurate, less expensive, and less time-consuming than animal experiments, yet change comes slowly and many researchers are unwilling to switch to superior technological advances. Animal experimentation not only is preventing us from learning more relevant information, it continues to harm and kill animals and people every year.”

    Patently false (and unscientific).

  23. #23 Paul Browne
    October 3, 2009

    Philip “How exactly is PETA anti-science? I ask for two reasons. First, I have a very explicit definition of the concept of anti-science. Second, I fear if we as a scientific community overuse this concept is devalues its worth.”

    You may be correct that PeTA do not have as a primary objective the overthrow of the scientific method as many creationist/ID or alt-med groups do, but anyone familiar with the organization and its membership will be well aware that PeTA has at the very least a very strong anti-scientific tendency. For example high ranking PeTA member Bill Maher’s anti-scientific views have been the subject of much discussion on SciBlogs in recent weeks, and as Orac has discussed on Respectful Insolence on several occasions recently members of the strongly PeTA aligned lobby group PCRM are deep into woo. In the past PeTA has even gone so far as to align itself with HIV/AIDS denialist groups in California.

    Added to this PeTA has shown itself time and again to be willing to distort and misrepresent science to further its aims.

    If you add that to their attempts to undermine what many scientists and science educators view to be a very valuable part of science education than I don’t think describing PeTA as anti-science is going to far.

    Having said this I think that PeTA is perfectly entitled to urge its supporters to write to donors choose and make their case, and even to urge them to boycott it entirely if they don’t like its policies (I’m assuming that PeTA members won’t be donating to too many dissection projects). The onus is on us in the scientific community to demonstrate to Donors Choose through our contributions that dissection projects are a valuable and necessary part of science education.

  24. #24 Phillip
    October 3, 2009

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives Dario and Paul. I must admit that I haven’t paid much attention to PETA in the last few years but did try to query some of their philosophy and campaigns yesterday. Obviously it will take more than a few hours on the “Google” to understand the full weight and depth of their advocacy. Same could be said for fully perusing the ideas and what appear to be broad definitions/articles on “anti-science.”

    Dario: Is there a difference between unscientific and anti-science? I tend to think the answer is yes. I especially think the answer is yes in the muddled world outside laboratories and universities; the world composed of applied sciences, commercial manufactures and politics. I have been strongly influenced by the idea that science IS A “way of knowing,” not inherently THE WAY of knowing. But is the aforementioned PETA statement any more “anti-science” than the untested arguments E.O Wilson makes in “Consilience”? To me we are more accurately talking about anti-scientism, not anti-science.

    Paul: Could you point me in the direction of where PETA has attempted to “distort and misrepresent science to further its aims”? I think this would have a significant impact on how I pursue this subject and my questions.

    The first concept of yours about Maher and PCRM (haven’t researched them yet myself), is this not an ad hominem and guilt by association argument? Aren’t these forms of logical fallacy?

    I read several of the blogs about Maher and was shocked by some of his statements, though if I had been more attentive in the past I shouldn’t have been. I disagree with many of his opinions and definitely struggle with those times he falsely presents his ideas as supported by evidence. He needs to be adamantly called out on such issues. But isn’t this more about ethics and less about science? Or are we starting to incorporate anything that affects the reach of applied science and science technology into society into anti-science? I would compare it to the difference between those who ignore the evidence of global warming (or question the methodology of research, etc) versus those who don’t want to apply the science that might help counter the problem.

    I just seems the arguments for PETA being anti-science thus far to me appear to be more about their tendency to attack not science, but the extension of science (which many of us see as very natural and justifiable) into society and the like. I think this is most obvious in the rationalization of PETA’s anti-science ways via them trying to “undermine what many scientists and science educators view to be a very valuable part of science education.” Now we are going to call people anti-science because of an ethical problem with a specific tool of the trade? Can’t we just be happy with the explicit understanding of anti-dissection? People understand that very well and it allows us to have a focused dialog.

    I think this is an important distinction because I think when we make the argument that ID, or the like, is “anti-science” it needs to carry significant weight. It needs to infer that science is the process of discovery through natural means and the specific methodology. But instead, when we extend it to the likes of PETA, it becomes something so watered down it lacks any value or purpose in description. Do we really want anti-science to mean being against certain tools of the trade?

  25. #25 Chris Clarke
    October 3, 2009

    Janet, your point about variation in live specimens and the lack of same in computer models is stunning. Thanks for the observation, which I think is going to prompt some writing on my part.

  26. #26 MPL
    October 4, 2009

    Blaming dissection for Jeffrey Dahmer is like blaming gym class for adolescent sexuality.

  27. #27 tkerwin
    October 4, 2009

    I’m a grad student in computer science and actually write advanced computer simulations for dissection and learning anatomy. While I don’t agree with PETA’s heavy-handed approach to shut down anything involving animals, I think many of you are minimizing the potential effect of computer models in education.

    The variation in physical specimens can definitely be replicated with computer models. If you have a anatomical model generated from CT and MRI scans of a frog, run ten frogs through the scanners and you have ten variations of a frog. You can show these variations to multiple students, which is better than discarding the remains of the physical dissection after a student has performed it.

    The visceral nature of the physical dissection might be a hindrance to learning for some students. A student grossed out by the smell and act of cutting open a frog with a scalpel might learn more in front of a computer screen than in running to the bathroom.

    Of course computer simulations won’t be appropriate for all anatomical education and data resolution could be an issue in some cases, but the quality of computer models is increasing rapidly.

  28. #28 becca
    October 4, 2009

    For me, a large part of the redeeming ethical value of animal research is based in the acquisition of new knowledge. If it weren’t for that value, why would non-duplication be a consideration for IACUCs? Why else would researchers focus on designing experiments to maximize knowledge gained per animal (well, ok $ is one issue, but I think most researchers [correctly, imo] are extra cautious to use animal resources wisely)?

    Personally, I wish IACUC guidelines were a little more lax in one respect… I don’t see why schoolkids should be dissecting frogs if there are animal bodies leftover from research that would be perfectly good dissection specimens that are simply disposed of as biohazardous waste.

    It angers me that we’d treat kids in poorer districts as less worthy of the materials needed to give them a fully adequate biology course.” Wow. That’d enrage me too. I’m not at all convinced that’s what’s going on here (even unintentionally).
    I’ve done virtual dissections (frog) and ‘real’ dissections (fetal pig). I can’t say I find either to be remarkably educational, to be blunt. Personally I always wanted to dissect a cadaver.
    In any case, where is the evidence that dissecting animals is “needed to give them a fully adequate biology course”? Citation please?
    (note: I’m sure dissections are more useful/interesting for some students, and I’m sure computer programs are more useful/interesting for others; but I’m interested in evidence that virtual dissections per se lead to poorer educational outcomes in groups)

    I don’t particularly like PETA. But I will not be donating to any animal dissection projects either.

  29. #29 Paul Browne
    October 5, 2009

    Philip “Paul: Could you point me in the direction of where PETA has attempted to “distort and misrepresent science to further its aims”? I think this would have a significant impact on how I pursue this subject and my questions.”

    Where to start. Well one case that particularly got me is the claim that the development of HIV protease inhibitors was delayed by animal research (it’s on their website, and in many published statements by Peter Tatchell on a PeTA sponsored tour in the mid-1990’s), in particular claiming that the development of Indinavir by Merck was delayed due to toxicity in animal when in fact the toxicity was in an earlier candidate protease inhibitor and Indinavir was selected partly on the basis of its good toxicological and pharmacokinetic profiles in animals* (in-vitro anti-viral activity was obviously also a key criterion). In their commentaty PeTA misquote scientists and misrepresent science in order to present a version of events that did not happen!

    This was about the same time as PeTA joined forces with the HIV/AIDS denialist group ACT UP San Fransisco (an organization who made a mockery of the original ACT UP philosophy) http://www.sfweekly.com/1997-03-19/news/men-behaving-viciously/5

    I take your point about “guilt by association” but there comes a point where the associates of an individual or group begin to tell you a lot about what that individual or group really believes. I think it’s safe to say that PeTa reached that point a long time ago.

    As to “unscientific” versus “anti-scientific” I admit that it’s not always an easy distinction to make, and PeTA is certainly an organization that inhabits the grey area between the two definitiions. However I think that when you look at who PeTA chooses to associate with and its practices it really does appear more anti-scientific than merely non-scientific.

    * “L-735,524: the design of a potent and orally bioavailable HIV protease inhibitor” Dorsey B. D. et al. J. Med. Chem. Vol.37 pp.3443-3451 (1994). PubMed: 7932573

  30. #30 Sally
    October 7, 2009

    After reading about DonorsChoose on their website I really cannot see how anyone couldn’t agree with their mission. Donating to inner city schools is one of the most noble things you could do in my mind. Although I agree with many of PETA’s ideas, this isn’t one of them. I remember dissecting frogs in high school and although I hated it, I really learned alot!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.