Adventures in Ethics and Science

Earlier this week, I related a situation I found alarming in which a scientist and his children were targeted for harassment because he dared to express the view that research with animals plays an important role in answering scientific questions that matter to scientists and to the public. I was not alone in decrying these tactics. At least one animal rights group also condemned them.

Given that the post was pretty clearly directed at the question of tactics, I am frankly puzzled by this comment from Douglas Watts:

When I see mainstream “science” commit itself to a program which phases out vivisection by date certain, this post would have credibility. Without such a pledge and plan, you are basically saying that scientists are separate from the rest of society and should not be held to the standards the rest of society must live up to. In doing so, you are making the anti-vivisectionists point for them: scientists are unwilling and unable to clean up their own house.

If I’m understanding it, the logical structure of what Douglas Watts is claiming here is something like this:

  • Targeting for harassment someone for publicly expressing a view in support of X, and targeting that person’s children at their school, is wrong unless the scientific community fails to pledge to stop doing X by a precise date.
  • Claiming that people and their children ought not to be harassed and intimidated for expressing a view seeks to put them outside the standards to which the rest of society is held.
  • If people are targeting you for harassment and intimidation for speaking in support of X, doing X and/or speaking in support of X must be wrong.

In short, it sounds like Douglas Watts is saying that we most certainly ought to embrace a society where people who disagree with our views post our names, addresses, and phone numbers online, put on their ski masks and bang on the windows of our houses after dark, and go to our children’s schools to hand out literature describing how evil we are to hold a view like X.

Is that what’s being claimed here?

The post to which this comment was purportedly a response asserted that:

Having differing opinions is not a crime. Nobody’s kids should be targeted for harassment because you disagree with their parents. We need to call this behavior out, no matter who does it, no matter what cause they hope to further with it.

Either Douglas Watts is claiming that harassment is always an acceptable tactic, or that it’s acceptable in pursuing some ends, but not others.

If it’s the latter, I’d be very interested in how he has arrived at the definitive list of causes in whose pursuit anything goes.

Comments

  1. #1 Bijan Parsia
    February 27, 2010

    Is here a typo in the first point of the logical structure? It currently reads:

    Targeting for harassment someone for publicly expressing a view in support of X, and targeting that person’s children at their school, is wrong unless the scientific community pledges to stop doing X by a a precise date.

    Isn’t Watts implying that it’s ok to harass unless there’s the pledge?

    What I find confusing is the lack of substantive justification from the pro-harassment forces for the targeting of scientist’s children. I presume it’s either guilt by association (which is clearly just thuggery) or some sort of blackmail attempt. From what I understand it’s not collateral damage (i.e., the children are being directly targeted).

    And Ringach isn’t even experimenting on primates! Just advocating experimentation?

    Perhaps it’s so obviously indefensible that they don’t even try to defend it?

  2. #2 Jared
    February 27, 2010

    Just an random thought which crossed my mind: do these “animal rights groups” terrorists think scientists enjoy performing research on animals?

    There’s currently a series in my little dark corner of the blogosphere concerning the nature of “patriotism vs terrorism” and how individuals being targeted are “dehumanized” as a tactic to convince others to support them. Pliny points out that “patriotism” and “terrorism” are really not very different.

    From a psychological perspective, terrorists and “patriots” both tend to be high scorers on the RWA scale.

    This particular example of scientists being the target of terrorist activities presents the conundrum of why the “Ghandi trap”-to quote Altemeyer-isn’t decreasing the level of this particular breed of terrorism. I think this may be due to the stronger (and more effective) techniques to dehumanize the scientists involved in such research and supporting such research, coupled with the low penetrance (to borrow a genetics term) of responses by scientists to these accusations.

    Just my two cents; do with it whatever you desire. Feel free to exclude this from posting since it is only tangential.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    February 27, 2010

    Bijan, thanks for catching the typo. Fixed now.

  4. #4 Mike Olson
    February 27, 2010

    A couple of things I’ve heard come to mind. I really wish I could back them with great arguments, examples or logic…mabye someone else can. Terrorism works. I’ve heard this from folks who claim to deal with it. If you’re opponent fails to do as you wish and you can’t force them to change legally, engage in a terrorist act and they will be forced to change their behavior most likely in a direction beneficial to your cause. It becomes known it is dangerous to oppose you. Also, as oddly as it sounds in this conversation, any group of extremist of for that matter, perhaps even folks who hold a particular opinion strongly do “de-humanize” their opponents. Their opposition is so wrong that it is okay to act outside the bounds of normal social mores and laws. Anything is acceptable because the opposition poses some threat so great that their life, health and well being are immaterial to the greater cause of the ultimate righteousness “winning” out and becoming the prevailing opinion. Obviously this is hypocritical: eg “I’m going to terrorize, frighten, harrass and intimidate you or possibly kill you because I think you are doing this to someone else.” In short, terrorists become exactly that which they oppose. All of them. A minister once told me that one religion was not the problem. Fundamentalists were. Folks who see issues in b/w and are very literal thinkers. I think that such persons don’t just exist in the religious world. Animal rights issues prove that.

  5. #5 EMJ
    February 27, 2010

    Great post Janet. It’s hard to understand how anyone could claim that defending a position is tantamount to violating the “standards the rest of society must live up to.” As far as I’m aware, animal experimentation is not a crime. If people think it should be, fine. There’s a process to achieve that. Get on it. There are many currently legal practices that perhaps ought to be considered crimes (and many of them are regularly employed by Goldman Sachs). But that needs to be achieved through the democratic process.

    There’s also just the basic issue of knowing how to build a campaign. Expressing an opinion does not warrant calling someone a murderer at their child’s school. Hosting a dialogue does not warrant posting that individual’s personal information on the internet and placing a target on their back. In addition to it being immoral, cruel and despicable, all it will do is further alienate people who may have actually been allies (or at least sympathetic) if it had been handled differently. But perhaps even that’s asking too much.

    I’m not of the opinion that animal rights activists are crazy or inherently violence prone (but some are, and that becomes a serious problem). Anti-vivisection activists, like anti-abortion activists, are largely drawing from the same play book and have similar motivations. At present they are not as numerous or as organized as many of these anti-abortion groups, but they may well be in the future. I think looking at strategies for what has been effective in dealing with the latter could be of value in informing our approach to the former. The condemnation by affiliated groups is important, as are counter demonstrations that marginalize and/or embarrass the extremists. My only hope is that something changes (and soon) before the animal rights version of Scott Roeder appears.

  6. #6 razib
    February 27, 2010

    the animal rights version of Scott Roeder appears.

    the killer of the right-wing dutch politician, pim fortyun, was an animal rights activist.

  7. #7 EMJ
    February 27, 2010

    Yes, but that wasn’t the reason Fortyun was murdered. Van der Graaf murdered him for his vocal anti-Muslim stance, as he admitted himself. Let’s not use the “Hitler was a vegetarian” argument.

  8. #8 Tom Holder
    February 27, 2010

    SR have finally weighed in on the recent events:
    http://speakingofresearch.com/2010/02/27/scienceblogs-fight-for-research/

  9. #9 becca
    February 27, 2010

    Yeah, I think the argument is “I can’t go and take a raccoon from my backyard and do to it what a scientist does to a research non-human animal, ergo it’s a clear violation of social norms (if not law). Therefore, if they are unwilling to ‘play by the rules’ we can hardly be critiqued for violating social norms (but not the law*).”

    In this case, I think it’s evil. But the underlying logic is widely accepted in our society. Or do you really want to try getting the majority of the American population to admit that freakin internment camps were wrong, let alone Hiroshima? Heck, I’m pretty pacifistic and *I’m* not sure the later was wrong, at least without making historical hindsight = 20/20 judgments. If your cause is good enough, maybe your tactics don’t need to be. Assuming no good tactics will work .

    *NB: IANAL and I doubt the commenter I’m trying to understand is either; I suspect they assume the tactics at the kids schools would not constitute illegal activities.

  10. #10 kb
    February 27, 2010

    I could be totally wrong on this, but aren’t vivisections done on anesthetized animals? And the experiments have to pass an ethics committee before they can be done? (It’s almost like, the scientists are cleaning up their own house!) I’m not entirely sure about my first assertion, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

  11. #11 Anonymous
    February 28, 2010

    I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a moment, if I may, and ask a simple question (and forgive me if this has been answered elsewhere). Why is it okay to submit non-human animals to medico-scientific experimentation and not okay to submit consenting human animals to the same (or, at least, not significantly different) testing? What criteri[on/a] is being used to justify this? We can for the sake of argument assume a weaker claim (as opposed to the “no experimentation on non-humans whatever” line): that it is not to be the case that humans will be used instead of non-humans, but rather it will be in addition to non-human animals.

  12. #12 diana
    February 28, 2010

    Janet –

    Your post seems to suggest that you believe that the morality of tactics can be evaluated independent of the cause to which they are put. This strikes me as impossible.

    For example, leafletting is a fairly benign activity that would generally be deemed acceptable…but I would suggest that leafletting in support of certain causes is immoral (even if legal). Leafletting to strip women of the right to vote for example is immoral…anything that advances that cause is immoral.

    In contrast, more aggressive and perhaps illegal tactics could be justified based on the cause to which they are being put. Harriet Tubman violated the law and stole other people’s “property” and yet with the advantage of hindsight, few decent people would condemn Harriet Tubman.

    It is completely fanciful to suggest that we can draw up lists of tactics that are perfectly legitimate for any group to use regardless of the cause they are advancing.

  13. #13 Ian
    February 28, 2010

    Hey KB –

    Passing an ethics committee (that often is populated with a significant number of vivisectors) is of very little value.

    Activists could set up “ethics committees” too – and I am sure that that would offer little consolation to their targets. If the ALF burned down a building and included in the communique the fact that their “ethics committee” approved the action prior to it being carried out would you be satisfied?

    Animals probably aren’t consoled by knowing that those who killed them ran the plan by an ethics committee first.

  14. #14 nsib
    February 28, 2010

    So Ian, let me get this straight: You think that it’s immoral for humans to kill animals, but it’s fine and dandy for non-human animals to kill other animals?

  15. #15 Pete M.
    February 28, 2010

    Diane –
    Janet doesn’t need to claim that “the morality of tactics can be evaluated independent of the cause to which they are put” in any general way. She only needs that some tactics are immoral under all or at least the great majority of conditions – and I fully support the claim that targeting children for harassment is one of these.

  16. #16 Paul Browne
    March 1, 2010

    Anonymous “Why is it okay to submit non-human animals to medico-scientific experimentation and not okay to submit consenting human animals to the same (or, at least, not significantly different) testing?2

    I suggest you do an online search using the terms “experimental medicine” and “clinical trial”, that should get you started.

    Of course one of the reasons scientists use model organisms, including mammals (mostly rodents), for many studies is it is possible to do experiments that it would simply not be possible to do in humans e.g. GM studies.

    Diana “For example, leafletting is a fairly benign activity that would generally be deemed acceptable…but I would suggest that leafletting in support of certain causes is immoral (even if legal). Leafletting to strip women of the right to vote for example is immoral…anything that advances that cause is immoral.”

    That’s quite a scary view. If there was ever any serious risk that women might be stripped of the right to vote I would be front lines of those opposing that change. However I support the right of somebody who believes in that cause to leaflet in its support*. On the other hand should that individual start to protest outside the homes of feminists or discuss targeting their childrens school in a post that contains support for fire bombing said feminist my tolerance would quickly vanish.

    Diana, I wonder if you could enlighten us as to what your views are of the anti-abortion extremists such as Operation Rescue who adopt similar tactice to animal-rights extremists. Like you they have very strong views and if you look at the issue from their philosophical viewpoint (which I don’t share) you can see how they might be motivated towards very extreme tactics.

    From where I’m sitting your views on the acceptability of protest/direct action tactics are governed chiefly by whether tyou agree with the objectives of the cause in question. That is a very dangerous road to go down.

    * Of course if women lost the right to vote the blow to democracy would be severe, which might alter the moral equation as to what actions might be acceptable to reverse the ban…that’s probably a more interesting question.

  17. #17 Diane
    March 1, 2010

    Pete M.

    Yes, you are right, Janet need only claim that “some tactics are immoral under all or at least the great majority of conditions” and that targeting children for harassment is one of these; not necessarily the larger claim that I initially put forward.

    Of course, it’s unclear whether the event in question is suitably described as harassment…my understanding is that activists intend to leaflet at a school for the purposes of sharing that a local member of the community harms animals. On its face, that isn’t necessarily harassment or immoral.

    Also – one thing I have not seen mentioned in this discussion (here or elsewhere) is the age of the children that are purportedly being targeted…is this an elementary school, a high school, etc? That would seem fairly significant in assessing this action.

  18. #18 Dave
    March 1, 2010

    At what point does this type of harrasement cross the line into assault, defamation, and slander? It also seems to me that wearing a ski mask and banging on windows in the middle of the night is a great way to let the homeowner claim self defense, ” there was a masked man breaking into my house. I thought he had a gun….” Also, aren’t there laws against stalking?

    Bookkeeping:
    1) Gerald Ford apologized for the internment of the Japanese Americans. Ronald Reagan signed into law reparation for internment and HW Bush signed into law funding for reparations and apologized again for the internment of Japanese Americans.

    2) When people criticize targeting of civilians by strategic bombing in WWII — done by all sides — why do they go leaping to the 2 atom bomb attacks and ignore the nightly firebombing attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Germany and Japan? Is it a knee jerk reaction to nuclear fission? Or is it a… lack of awareness of history?

  19. #19 diana
    March 1, 2010

    Paul Browne –

    I think you have accurately characterized my position, I do not believe that the morality of tactics can be assessed apart from the morality of the cause to which they are being put.

    Therefore, I do not understand how pro-life activists can condemn Scott Roeder. I condemn Scott Roeder but to do so I feel compelled to argue against many of the fundamental claims of the pro-life position. Condemning Scott Roeder and maintaining a pro-life position strikes me as inconsistent (unless one is also a pacifist, but that’s not a very popular view).

    To follow up on the example of leafletting to strip women of their voting rights. I think that activity is immoral but that it should be legally protected. The law is a crude instument and we shouldn’t try to get it to perfectly align with morality. We should condemn anyone who engages in that activty but not enlist the power of the state to punish that person.

  20. #20 abb3w
    March 1, 2010

    Either Douglas Watts is claiming that harassment is always an acceptable tactic, or that it’s acceptable in pursuing some ends, but not others.

    Perhaps harassment might be an acceptable tactic for convincing people that harassment is not an acceptable tactic….

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    March 2, 2010

    I think the difficulty with this is that it isn’t clear that all tactics of resistance are impermissable in all circumstances. For example, you mention harassing them or their children – but passing out leaflets in front of an adult’s laboratory, or even standing a reasonable distance back with pickets and shouts should be perfectly permissable. The tactic of involving children is reprehensible – but even that might be permissable in some circumstances. For example, for older teenagers, making it publically known in their school that, say, their father owned slaves, might constitute a legitimate response, given the heinousness of the action. Context, as always, is everything.

    My claim is not that in this case, these tactics are justified, but that I don’t think that the ethical categories are as clear as you make it out to be. While some actions are always unacceptable, there are necessarily a smaller number of these than actions that are acceptable in some cases and not in others.

    Sharon

  22. #22 Cleveland
    March 2, 2010

    but passing out leaflets in front of an adult’s laboratory, or even standing a reasonable distance back with pickets and shouts should be perfectly permissable.

    Not if they are scurrilous lies, my farming friend. Let them leaflet your neighborhood with faked up graphic depictions of you gelding lambs with your teeth, sans anesthesia, and letting them run about bleeding (and bleating) all over the pen. or that just for kicks you stab a cow with a 3″ rusty penknife until it dies from blood loss, whereupon you just let it rot in the field to no possible end. then you will start to get some idea of the dishonesty involved. if you were under that sort of attack I suspect your fine principles would waver a touch.

  23. #23 Sharon Astyk
    March 3, 2010

    I have no doubt I’d be pissed as hell, and I suspect my principles would waver. I would hope, however, that as long as their actions took place within the law, however, those charged with mediation and enforcement wouldn’t allow my judgement to be the only one involved ;-). This reminds me of the pro-death penalty objections “wouldn’t you want to kill them if they hurt your kids.” Of course I would – with my bare hands and a rusty spoon. But that doesn’t change the fact that that’s precisely why we don’t allow the Mom of the victim on the jury.

    I’ve had animal rights activists come to my farm, and I’ve not always enjoyed the experience. But I also engage in public protest on occasion – I want to live in a world where public protest is fully permissable, where I can characterize Dick Cheney as castrating lambs with his bare teeth for satiric purposes, even if I don’t always enjoy the outcomes of living in such a society when people who hold beliefs I don’t use them against me. What worries me about this conversation is that I think many of the people most passionately opposed to the (reprehensible) targetting of children are overstepping their language, and moving into “they are wrong, so their acts are wrong” reasoning, precisely the opposite, and just as wrong as what our host has proposed.

    Sharon

  24. #24 Cleveland
    March 3, 2010

    and moving into “they are wrong, so their acts are wrong” reasoning

    Not so. More along the lines of “if you aren’t with us, you are against us” and “aid and comfort to the enemy”. Get your anti-fascist tropes right!!! :-)

    You are quite correct that this tension between freedom of (political) expression and freedom from harassment is very difficult for the notoriously left-of-center academic types who predominate academic science. It drives much of the resistance on the part of many scientists to define the ARA extremists as the terrorists that they are-because those scientists recoiled from the Bush II administration’s War on Terrah!TM. I don’t have any pat solutions for anyone trying to balance goals of free-expression against the desire to eliminate criminal attacks against scientists.

    Where do you stand on the intimidation issue, Sharon?

    The analogy with access to abortion is apt. Roe v. Wade was a generation ago. The extremists who didn’t like this took to using their freedom-of-expression to intimidate women from using clinics and to intimidate healthcare workers from operating clinics. The uneasy balance has been struck but the result is that in many places in the US a woman’s access to abortion really is quite poor. High hurdles are in place before her.

    Do fans of freedom-of-expression who are also fervently pro-choice feel like this is a desired outcome? Do they accept this compromise because they themselves are not directly under the circumstances of living in South Dakota, say? or because they are wealthy enough to be able to fly anywhere in the US on a credit card, if nothing else, to obtain an abortion at dire need?

    Your comment about the rule of law and not taking the rusty spoon to a child molester is rather insultingly misplaced, by the way. It might apply, I suppose, to the chap in Santa Cruz who supposedly physically responded to the ARA goons breaking down his door. What everyone else is talking about is not how we respond to an active crime on the spot. Not at all. It is about preventing those crimes or undesired behavior in the first place. Whether by discouraging it in general or by responding usefully to situations that threaten to become criminal.

    And lest you forget, harassment is a crime. Would you agree that while expressing generic disapproval of animal research falls under noncriminal freedom of expression, the targeting of individual researchers is nothing less than criminal harassment?

  25. #25 Sharon Astyk
    March 4, 2010

    The problem is that establishing what constitutes harassment and what constitutes legitimate protest is difficult. I don’t take a blanket statement that anything that specifically refers to an individual constitutes harassment – again, the problem is that I can’t then specifically attack a political official, as opposed to the agency he represents, or a religious leader. Personal targetting in such a way as to make them fear for their safety certainly constitutes harassment, and I don’t think that that’s under debate here. But specific targetting of an individual in any way doesn’t constitute harassment – if I write that another writer is an asshole, that’s not. Figuring out exactly where the line is is the rule of law’s problem – and the people who help shape the law, including those who sue for redress under it.

    My use of the death penalty argument wasn’t about the particular acts – you asked me how my principles would fare if it were me. And I think it is precisely analagous to say that there are many instances when all of us cannot count on our belief in our principles standing up over our emotional response, our anger – often our perfectly legitimate outrage. That doesn’t mean, however, that our personal reactions should frame the legal response.

    Where do I stand on intimidation? I think that the lines of legal action have to be pretty liberal, and yes, sometimes that allows people to be intimidated out of doing things that they have a perfect right to do. I was a clinic escort for many years, and I hate the impact their choice of tactics has one women seeking abortion. But those tactics aren’t always used for wrong things – the targetting of political officials, for example has been used to get Guantanamo closed – people have demonstrated in front of the homes of those who have supported torture, for example. I have no doubt that that is deeply intimidating to those who have done so – and I still want that method of response to be available. Cross the street, touch the lawn, target the kids, grab someone’s arm and go to jail – and that’s as it should be. But I don’t think that a free society can ensure that no one will ever face psychological intimidation of any kind.

    Sharon

  26. #26 Cleveland
    March 4, 2010

    Sharon, you are including public officials and non-public-officials in your schema. They are distinct when it comes to certain protections under the law including libel. Do you think this is a good or bad thing. And are scientists public officials in this sense or not?

    Personal targetting in such a way as to make them fear for their safety certainly constitutes harassment, and I don’t think that that’s under debate here

    Actually it is. The crazies exist and they demonstrably engage in behavior that makes researchers fear for their safety. Thus, any identification, posting of addresses, etc that is undertaken under cover of what you construe, I assume, as legitimate intimidation also enhances the chances of the crazy attack. So by your statement here, eradication of the personal attack is justified. yet you don’t seem to be following a consistent line here…

    sometimes that allows people to be intimidated out of doing things that they have a perfect right to do.

    That is a reprehensible corruption of freedom of expression. One of the fundamental underpinnings of the US concept of personal liberty is that “rights” leave off where they infringe on the rights of another.

    Look if we were talking about people who don’t like tort lawyers or the pigs or dentists, that would be one thing. Scientists don’t have to be liked. They can handle some nasty opinions directed their way. Fair game. But there are very, very, very few legal professions (or any professions) in which the practitioners are subject to weekly harassment of the type sustained by the UCLA researchers. Merely for expressing his *opinion* in the case of Professor Ringach.

    There is really something wrong with the moral compass of people who cannot grasp this reality because of their conceited desire to retain their “against the Man” street cred.

    You worked as a clinic escort, great, that’s putting your money where you mouth is. Great. But your position displays a regrettable insensitivity to those women who were scared to so much as avail themselves of your escorting. As you are helping some women, you are throwing others (and their unwanted children) under the bus of your fine principles. Never forget that.

  27. #27 Sharon Astyk
    March 7, 2010

    Wow, Cleveland, how charmingly ad hominem.

    No, all forms of intimidation aren’t immoral – otherwise it would be illegal to call someone a scab for crossing a picket line or stand up within a proscribed distance of a business that pollutes heavily and tell people attempting to patronize them what they are doing. That’s the whole idea – to use everything from moral suasion to a certain, legal measure of psychological pressure to discourage people from doing things. We all know it is legal, and somehow people always find a way to defend it when they are describing their pet politics, but not for others. We also know it works – and is a valid strategy of protest.

    Making all forms of psychological pressure that might discourage someone from doing something illegal would have a lot less to do with the archaic “sticking it to the man” which was old when my parents were young and a lot more to do with creating a society in which citizens have few methods of redress.

    And yes, that means that some women who want abortions and are vulnerable will never get them, because they can’t bear to go past the protesters. And that some animal researchers will decide that this is too much hassle and stop, and all of those people deserve sympathy, and they deserve help and support to enable them to do what is legal. But there is no right to a perfectly free and clear path to doing everything – no right to no public disapproval, no right to prohibit all protest, even protest that I find offensive or unpleasant or even intimidating – no right to always feel good about what you are doing and never encounter negative protest or hostility or even name calling – and as crappy and horrible as it is that people who want legal abortions get scared off, no rational person would want to live in a world that prohibited those methods of protest for everyone. So either you argue that adult women (you might credibly make this argument for girls seeking abortions, and indeed, some legal challenges have) are a special, protected class who can’t be expected to endure trauma (and it sucks and is unfair – it isn’t immoral however) – and that comes with problems too, or you live in a society where people have few methods of redress. Sometimes the greater good involves conflicts – and there isn’t always a good answer.

    I didn’t throw those women under the bus, as you so charmingly put it – our democracy did. I support every legal barrier to those protesters – but not to making them go away, or making them stop calling names, much as I hate to hear them. Because the alternative is a much less democratic state.

    Sharon

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