Adventures in Ethics and Science

Because there are some conversations you have to have with your kids even if you wish you didn’t have to have them:

Dr. Free-Ride: I wanted to talk to you about a situation that has come up for a friend of mine and is a little worrisome. So, you know I went down to UCLA the other week, right?

Younger offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you know what I was there for?

Elder offspring: A conference?


Dr. Free-Ride: Nope, it wasn’t a conference. It was an event, a dialogue, where people were discussing scientific research with animals. In particular, some people were discussing why they support it and some people were discussing why they’re against it. Some of the people are for it for scientific reasons and some of the people are against it for scientific reasons. Some of the people are for it for ethical reasons and some of the people are against if for ethical reasons. But, we were at this event where we all got to talk about the reasons we thought the way we did, and people in the audience got to ask questions, and it was really useful. But here’s the thing: one of the people who participated in that event, who used to do research with animals, stopped doing that research because people who were very much against research with animals, came up to his house at night in masks, banging on the windows yelling stuff. He was scared for his family, and he decided that he didn’t want to do work that was going to make life that scary for his family, so he stopped doing that.

Elder offspring: Wow.

Dr. Free-Ride: If someone is doing something you don’t like, what do you think of that as a strategy for communicating that you don’t like it?

Younger offspring: I think instead of scaring the people so they will stop doing their work, you should say, “I don’t like your work and I disagree with what you’re doing.”

Dr. Free-Ride: So you’re saying that it’s better to use words to communicate that you don’t like something than to scare someone.
Younger offspring: Yeah.

Elder offspring: I think the guy should find out what the people don’t like about his work and he can try not to do that.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, you know what happened, he was so upset by the fact that his family got dragged into it that he just stopped doing that research at all, even though the research was about understanding how our brains work –

Elder offspring: What was he using?

Dr. Free-Ride: He was using primates — monkeys of some sort, I think — because monkeys, in some ways, are simpler than humans, and they have quicker lifespans, so you can find out some similar kinds of things that it would be hard to find out from research on humans.

Elder offspring: Was he using any endangered species?

Dr. Free-Ride: No, he wasn’t using any endangered species. And while the research he was doing didn’t directly find cures for anything, the more we understand about how our bodies and brains work, the easier it is to help people whose bodies and brains aren’t working as they should.

Elder offspring: Well, if the people just don’t like him doing research with monkeys, maybe he could resume the research with lab rats. I mean, lab rats are pretty intelligent.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, actually, some of these people don’t think that any animals should be used for research at all, even if it could help people. And I understand that view. It’s not my view, but I understand it. But the thing that really bothered me was that they didn’t try to talk with him about it, or try to write to the people who make the laws, to deal with what was bothering them. They decided that the way to deal with him was to scare him. That was almost four years ago. Here’s the part that I’ve been worried about lately: even though he doesn’t do animal research anymore, he was on this panel explaining how animal research can help us in science to understand things, including things about human bodies and human brains and human health. Right before that event, and then after the event, the people who do the protests had protests at his home again — even though he doesn’t do this research anymore, he was just explaining why he thinks animal research can be useful. And the part that bothered me the most is that on a website, some of the people who do protests at his house said, “We found out where one of his kids goes to school, and we’re going to have a protest at that kid’s school.”

Younger offspring: I think that’s very mean, and I’m serious!

Elder offspring: You don’t need to yell.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, your sibling feels strongly about it

Elder offspring: I think … what reasons do the people have to protest? Are they good? Are they bad?

Dr. Free-Ride: I think that may be a separate question from whether they should be protesting the father speaking up about what he believes, or from whether they should be targeting the kid and the kid’s classmates. It seems to me if you have an argument with the parent, you don’t take that argument to the kid. If I did something in my job that people didn’t like, would it be fair for those people to show up at your school with leaflets explaining what a horrible person I was, or how I taught philosophy really badly? To try to get your friends to put pressure on you to make me change?

Younger offspring: No.

Dr. Free-Ride: Here’s a separate question: If someone showed up at your school, some grown-up you didn’t know with a stack of leaflets that they said were good information about something like animal research, and some of the leaflets had really scary pictures on the front of them, if you got one of these leaflets in your hands, what would you think about it?

Elder offspring: Well … you know, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, that’s true. And you know that not every source of information is reliable.

Elder offspring: Yes, but, if the people are reliable … then, I suppose, the leaflets are probably reliable — unless they’re about fairies or gnomes or something like that.

Dr. Free-Ride: So, how do you tell if someone you’ve never met before, who’s handing out leaflets at school, is reliable?

Elder offspring: Check their reputation online?

Dr. Free-Ride: Their reputation among whom? Their friends? Their enemies?

Elder offspring: I’ll Google them.

Dr. Free-Ride: You’ll let Google decide? Google is the arbiter of reputation as far as you’re concerned?

Elder offspring: Well, first I’ll ask them if they have a record of what they’ve done, and if they don’t, I’ll Google them and look for their record.

Dr. Free-Ride: What if they don’t give you their names? What if they just say, “No, this is real information! Look at it. Think about it”?

Elder offspring: Then I’ll check what it is and decide for myself if it’s real or not.

Younger offspring: It might be fake, though.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, if these protesters actually show up at the kid’s school, it could be kind of scary. When they protest at homes they hold up photographs that they say are what animal research looks like. Most animal research I’ve seen does not look like these photographs, but they make it sound like it’s all like the photographs they hold up. ANd, they make claims that all the people who do animal research do it because they like hurting animals, or because they want to make buckets of money. Most of the scientists I know who do research with animals do not make buckets of money, and they actually care a lot about animals. So, I worry that if protesters show up at the schools, even if they aren’t shouting things but are just handing out leaflets, that the pictures in these leaflets are going to make some of these kids really upset.

Younger offspring: The kids could say, “Sorry, I don’t know you, and I’m not going to listen to you, because you’re a stranger!

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s a good point. If you don’t know someone, especially if you’re a kid, you have a hard time telling whether you can trust them or not. Who can a kid trust? Who can a kid look to for more information? Besides Google.

Younger offspring: Friends. Parents.

Elder offspring: Scientists. Vets.

Dr. Free-Ride: Who else, who they might find nearby at a school?

Younger offspring: Teachers. Principals.

Elder offspring: Librarians.

Dr. Free-Ride: Awesome! I know some librarians who are going to give you major props for thinking of that. Librarians are good at helping you do research.

Younger offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, and I guess I should point out that some of the same people who like these protests at the scientists’ houses are kind of mad at me for coming to this event.

Younger offspring: Why?

Dr. Free-Ride: Because I said that, even though we should not be mean to animals, and we should try our best to be good to animals and take care of animals, I think that sometimes animal research is the right thing to do because it could help other humans who need our help. And, it can also help us help other animals. But some people are mad that I even just said that, even though I don’t do any scientific research at all.

Younger offspring: That’s not fair.

Elder offspring: Well, what I think is that animal research is all right, just … why do we want humans to benefit so much? If the population of humans keeps rising, it will push out other species.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, I think you’re quite right that we need to keep the interests of humans in perspective, and not do things that are just good for humans but drive other species into extinction. But animal research uses relatively few animals for the amount of knowledge it builds. It’s a much smaller number of animals used for science than are used for people to eat, for example. And there’s research that’s aimed at trying to save endangered species, to try to understand what’s pushing them towards extinction in the first place and then try to turn that around.

Elder offspring: I think that’s OK.

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    March 12, 2010

    A conversation all scientist should be having with their school age children Janet. Thanks for the prompt.

  2. #2 ET
    March 12, 2010

    You write: “But animal research uses relatively few animals for the amount of knowledge it builds.”

    So the number of animals used is important?
    What relative number would you feel comfortable with? Relative to what?
    What is the goal of all this knowledge building?
    How is the goal measured in relationship to the animal lives?

    PS I agree that targeting family is wrong.

  3. #3 Pierce
    March 12, 2010

    ET,
    I don’t want to speak for the Free-Rider(TM), but I do have my own answers to your questions.

    Of course the number of animals is important. Very few people, scientist or not, would support wasting animal lives.

    The relative number is “enough”, and we should seek to minimize the number while still getting solid results.

    Goals vary, from basic research to specialized applications. And outcomes are sometimes completely decoupled from goals: look at the laser, dubbed at the time of its invention as a “solution in search of a problem” and now vital in everything from medicine to entertainment to construction to business. There will be some blind alleys, but we don’t know until we explore them.

    The metric for evaluating animal research is going to vary wildly because of all the factors involved, and sadly some of those who oppose animal research are seeking to move it through intimidation. There are some who would draw the line at zero, that there would be no amount of benefit at any cost of animal lives that justified research; there are others who would draw the line at 100, that there is no requirement of any benefit or limit on animal lives used. I think both are ethically suspect, but your mileage may vary.

    I support animal research, but I support making it as humane and conserving of animal lives as possible, too. I think science has come a long, long way in addressing the latter, in part thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists. But until we can gain the knowledge animal research gives us without the animal research part (and make no mistake, we’re not there yet), we need animal research.

  4. #4 Dave C-H
    March 12, 2010

    Janet–Hey first of all, I thought you’d get a kick out of this: guess who is Chair of his University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee? Yup! I was like: “Guys, I still subscribe to the Earth First! Journal, you really don’t want me chairing IACUC,” but it’s pretty amazing how strong the avoidance instinct is in Academe, so none of the animal researchers would do it. Anyway, I thought that what I would have the most trouble with was the pain and suffering, but government regulations and researcher squeamishness really do seem to keep that to a minimum. What I’m finding is the most difficult for me is the waste. For example, undergraduate research is a requirement here, and some students were nearing the end of their senior year without a project. They did this one experiment in a lab class on the influence of chemicals on rat reproductive organs, decided it was interesting, and, boom, we were ordering 36 more rats for them to work on. I’m pretty certain that this study is never going to make it to an academic conference–I see it as fulfilling the BS degree which you could absolutely do without animal research. I brought this up to the committee, but was met with something like shock and the slippery-slope argument. My feeling is that I don’t really have a problem using a few rats in a teaching lab, but 36 for hoop-jumping seemed excessive. When people asked me why the number mattered, I had to think about it a lot. In the end, what I feel is that in most cases a lab rat’s life is extremely boring, regardless of how much pain they go through. They are social animals, and they get very little social interaction. They live in small cages by themselves, eat, sleep, and sometimes get injected with stuff. To me, the number of individual rats that have to endure the boredom of research life really is a very, very important number. I don’t think my colleagues see it this way. Say what you will about scientists caring for animals and such, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that the predominant feeling, though most will deny this of course, is that animals are disposable equipment. They shouldn’t go through unnecessary pain, but that’s where the concern ends, by and large. “If we’re going to use animals for meat, then I don’t see how this is different” is the argument that you get, and I don’t know how to respond to this, because I think torturing pigs so that we can save a few dollars in the grocery store is unconscionable as well. Thus, I’m stuck at “if”.

    That said, this is entirely off the topic of your essay. Absolutely, nobody should ever be persecuted for stating their opinions, and targeting children is inexcusable. I’m a bit more conflicted about whether nonviolent destruction of animal labs is a problem, but never should someone be intimidated for engaging in conversation.

    I’m always impressed by your interactions with your children!

  5. #5 David Jentsch
    March 12, 2010

    I was talking to someone writing a screenplay this morning, and she proposed what seemed like a strange plot: a researcher who performs studies on animals develops feelings for an animal rights activist that she meets on an ethics review board. The two share their personal perspectives on animal research as their relationship grows and both learn to understand the value of the questions and concerns the other holds. (End of story not yet created…)

    She asked me, “is this believable”?

    “If, by activist, you mean someone who screams obscenities outside my home or blows up cars…, ” I started before she cut me off and said “No no. Someone who cares passionately for animals and doesn’t think humans are justified in using them as research subjects against their will…”

    I stopped for a moment and thought about the relationships (strictly platonic!) I have developed with UCLA animal rights activists, and I knew immediately that it was believable.

    What kind of world do we live in when we start thinking that we can’t get close to those who hold widely differing views…? I think the answer is stark: it’s a world where we translate disagreements into personal attacks, harassment and intimidation (or otherwise punish those who dispute our opinions and beliefs). Some may think that “nonviolent destruction” of labs or personal property may not count as a “problem”, even though it involves destroying people’s life work and careers, sending a strong signal of “we’ll get you where ever you go” and incinerating the knowledge gained in that laboratory. If that is your position, you should not mind at all when a student torches your office door out of opposition for the content of the next exam… It’s “nonviolent destruction” after all… No one got hurt, right?

    Yea, just like no one got hurt when someone burned my car in my front yard while I slept 3 ft away… or when our friend’s children were mentioned as targets of the “informational campaign”… or when a graduate student got an email that prayed for her painful and untimely death. No “violence”? No “problem”? No way. We all need to reject this behavior for what it is. Period.

  6. #6 vera
    March 12, 2010

    “ANd, they make claims that all the people who do animal research do it because they like hurting animals, or because they want to make buckets of money.”
    Really? Do they say ALL? Hmmm… that sounds like a globalizing portrayal…

    “Well, what I think is that animal research is all right, just … why do we want humans to benefit so much? If the population of humans keeps rising, it will push out other species.”
    Smart kid.

  7. #7 Christina Pikas
    March 13, 2010

    OT: Yay, librarians! :)

  8. #8 david
    March 13, 2010

    Ah, me. Sorry to have left from interesting discussions, had an emergency. Probably I’m the only one who missed me.

    As a person just following the discussions and who watched the whole shebang of the 2.5 hour video I could not be more impartial.

    From an old hand, speaking to an audience while sitting on a panel requires a totally different speaking approach from talking to a class beholden to you. You need gestures, you need pauses, you need eye contact, you could do with some light table taps or mike taps. You need a way to emphasize what you say, not just who you are. In this case, in my opinion, the double PhD is a handicap to be overcome or set aside. You keep it, but not foremost. To think that this audience is just more of the same, univ. class students, is a mistake, the format has changed the substance. All six of you failed the format in my opinion. Iris Murdoch would have burst that knot apart.

    What you got is what you should have expected, you should have rejected the format lineup of three versus three, the seating arrangement, and not spoken based on your rhetorical ethos of a professor. You flung your body into the fray, always a mistake. If that’s the only way you can speak, then you asked for it, and should have expected the inevitable reaction. The person who really zapped you is the M.D. who made a big deal of calling you an expert on ethics. Just check with the audience to see what that did for you for them.

    You have many times asked for something to read, from those you consider in your group of course. I’m not in any group, prefer run-on sentences as in speech and laugh at freshman English teachers, but will recommend The Ethics of Rhetoric by the U Chicago professor Richard M. Weaver, based on Phaedra. I have heard that William F. Buckley, whom I disdain, liked the Weaver books on rhetoric, so for both of us to like them there must be something to them.

    Anyone who gets mad at someone’s mommy is wrong from the start.

    Now Dave C-H and David Jentsch have brought in some really good commentary. I note that the university institutions, one of whom you work for, are apparently loyal to, are closely tied to the research in question. I don’t know what the role of big pharma is nor who gets what money nor how the banal carekeepers are vetted nor who checks on whether their reports are lying facades. I note that “animal research” is often used as a cover term for what has been and may still be research on chimpanzees. I note that the MD’s allegation that the drug tests are wasteful and non-predictive for humans remains unchallenged by any facts. His allegation that Drosophila would do just as well is not rebutted.

    And then there is a group who has even less protection than the animals relegated to accepting by confinement the arrogated “undue suffering.” Those are human prisoners. What is the institutional role, of beloved universities, in prisoner research? Many are implicated, some sued such as ivy league U of Pennsylvania, some settled by payments. Here are some informational links: http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/1373/
    http://www.ahrp.org/testimonypresentations/CheaperThanChimpanzees0705.php

    I predict that when the prisoners are not available, the institutions, including universities, will turn to the third world, where they need the money, and “pay” them as they did the prisoners, who are cheaper than chimpanzees.

    As an impartial observer, I don’t see that those advocating “animal research” are supporting their position well. As an H.G. Wells fan I thought I might be for it as he was, but a difference has arisen. That difference is the role played by inscrutable, impersonal, unreachable, powerful institutions, including universities, veiled, who are about money, and not about ethics nor morals, far from it, unless forced sheerly to be so.

  9. #9 $0.01
    March 13, 2010

    As someone with an MLS, I second Christina.
    Also, I don’t think that you need to rationalize/justify your comments about research with “I don’t even do animal research,” because that’s irrelevant…It’s your right to believe and say what you want. There’s a line in the Broadway version of Rado & Ragni’s “Hair” along the lines of “You can say what you want, you can be what you want– just so long as you don’t hurt anybody. And remember kids, I am your friend.” That pretty much sums up my philosophy. You have your beliefs. Animal rights “activists” have theirs, but you’re not hurting anyone, and they are.

  10. #10 padraig
    March 15, 2010

    I’m also glad Janet & others have these conversations with their children. I think there was a tendency on the part of progressives in the second half of the 20th century to hide unpleasant truths from children, while conservatives tended to demand children accept the status quo without question. Either approach results in kids who run into a lot of rude awakenings as they mature, and inevitably some of them will try to hang onto their youthful illusions. The trick is in teaching kids about unpleasant realities without being utter buzz kills. Well done, Janet.

  11. #11 Zuska
    March 15, 2010

    Maybe your best FSB ever…at any rate, you and the sprogs produced an amazing collaboration. Thank you.

  12. #12 Dave C-H
    March 18, 2010

    “But you’re not hurting anyone, and they are.” Well, see, there’s the ethical difference of opinion–depends on what you see as anyone.

    Here’s my dilemma: unless you are a pacifist under all circumstances, there has to be a point at which resistance against government-supported or industry-supported violence is legitimate. If a corporation was building a robot army that would enslave and subjugate humanity in order to boost profits, then I think you could legitimately try to destroy the factory. I don’t care how many people put their life’s work into that factory. So, the question for me becomes not “Is it ok or not ok to destroy stuff”, but “at what point does destroying stuff become the lesser of two evils”? I do not personally believe that it is justified in most cases of animal research–as I said earlier, I am chairing a committee whose job is mostly to facilitate animal research. However, I think the summary of the general opinion here is: “Everyone has a right to their thoughts *and their actions*. If those actions turn to violence of any sort (such as destroying equipment), then that is going too far, and leads to a bleak world.” I agree with the last sentiment about a bleak world, but if you really believe that animals are conscious beings that have intrinsic value, then it becomes a question really of whether violence against stuff is ever justified to stop violence against beings. I don’t think that the issue is quite as cut-and-dry as most folks here are making it sound.

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