Tag Archives: Tom Holder

The Structure and Motivations of Antivivisection Organizations and Activists

I recently published a paper in EMBO reports (available free online for a few more weeks) which (among other things) looked at the factors influencing the animal rights movement, causing it to wax and wane over time.

Firstly I separated animal rights groups into two general types using the term “antivivisection” to separate the “anti-research” movement from other animal rights issues). The two types are:

  • Antivivisection Organizations (AVOs) are large, established groups who generally pay their staff, like PETA, HSUS or the BUAV.
  • Antivivisection Groups (AVGs) are smaller, more informal groupings of like-minded activists, who might be compensated for time put in, but are unlikely to be salaried. Examples would be Negotiation is Ov er (NIO), For Life on Earth or SHAC.

I used Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT; McCarthy & Zald, 1977), as an approach to understanding the antivivisection social movement. Essentially it suggests that success of a new social movement is determined by the resources available to it – these include knowledge, money, media, labor, solidarity and legitimacy.

It is people that provide resources to antivivisection groups and organizations – for example by offering their time, providing a donation, or lending a group legitimacy by speaking favorably of it to friends. These people are the central pillar of RMT and are split into three separate types:

  • Non-Supporters – People do not actively support the antivivisection movement because they either disagree with it, are unaware of it, or have other priorities competing their time and money.
  • Supporters – People who might donate to an AVG/AVO, attend one of their demos, or otherwise support the movement, but are not employed or core activists within the movement.
  • Activists – People who are either paid by an AVO, or spending a great deal of time working with an AVO.

The diagram below (from the EMBO article), outlines the resources which move between supporters/activists and AVO/AVGs, and some of the influencing factors which cause individuals to move into and out of the antivivisection movement.

Image Credit Tom Holder, Originally Published in EMBO Reports DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837

Image Credit Tom Holder, Originally Published in EMBO Reports DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837

Figure 1. A model of the antivivisection movement

The blue dashed arrows indicate the movement of people within the antivivisection movement: a person might read the website of an AVG and decide to change from non‐supporter (either someone who disagrees with the AV views or has not formed an opinion either way) to a supporter, donating money or spending their time and effort signing petitions. The green arrows denote the movement of resources (e.g. time and money), though it should be noted that these are not exhaustive lists of resources. In return for their time and effort, that person might get a “feel‐good buzz” about helping animals, or from the acceptance of their peers. Later, they might decide to get more involved. This change is the movement from supporter to activist (though the divisions are not clear‐cut). The activist still feels good about what he or she is doing—possibly with a greater social acceptance from their newfound colleagues—and might also find himself or herself remunerated. Note that by giving time or money to any one AVG/AVO, they are choosing not to give those resources to another, so there is a natural competition between these AVGs/AVOs. Years later, the person might find they have less time and will drop back to supporter status, or might find that the massive publicity surrounding an associated movement draws their time and effort (turquoise dashed arrows), such that they stop their involvement with the original AV movement. Such associated movements need not have any relation to animal rights, but the more similar they are to the AV movement, the more competition there will be. Legitimacy is an important resource that both supporters and activists provide. An animal rights group that can only muster 20 supporters at important demonstrations will eventually find its supporters moving to competing AVG/AVOs. When the entire antivivisection movement comes under negative media spotlight, or as laws or police activities make certain activities more difficult, many supporters may move to other associated movements, and many activists may choose to put their expertise into other areas.

Animal rights activism is often seen as some sort of fringe movement for young, impressionable idealists, yet in reality it bears a closer resemblance to the professional not-for-profit and charity sectors. As a cause comes under the media spotlight a charity sector can find new resources and expand, with smaller offshoots being formed around the issue, when the media spotlight disappears many of those supporting the cause also move to pastures new. The same is true for the animal rights movement.

Animal rights activism is a profession for many involved – selling outrage to a public who lack many of the pertinent facts. Activists move between AVO or AVGs just like charity campaigners move between organisations. Wendy Higgins, Communications Director at Humane Society International has had similar roles at the Dr Hadwen Trust and the British Union for the Abolition for Vivisection. Luke Steele has both founded and joined a multitude of AVGs, most recently the Anti-Vivisection Coalition. The Animal Liberation Press Office has had a whole host of different spokespeople as activists rise and fall.

These activists provide the AVOs and AVGs with a variety of resources including:

  • Manpower – Both to run the campaigns and hold out the collection tin at the end
  • Legitimacy – Large numbers of activists give organisations legitimacy in the eyes of both the public and the media, and respected activists provide legitimacy within the movement
  • Experience – Established activists know the activists, the media contacts and the techniques necessary to run effective campaigns.

In return they may receive financial remuneration or a salary, they also gain from the community to which they now belong, and respect among many of their peers.

However, just as activists may flow into a movement, so may they flow out. In the UK, while animal rights activism and extremism was at a high, the UK government founded the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) to tackle animal rights extremism. The following year the Serious Organised Crime and Prevention Act (SOCPA, 2005) was approved by parliament, which introduced longer sentences for those conspiring to blackmail research institutions, or interfering with contracts relating to animal research. Injunctions were brought by research facilities against animal rights groups. In 2007, Operation Achilles made 32 arrests across Europe of key animal rights extremists. The result was that many leaders of the antivivisection movement were locked up, depriving a generation of activists of the role models who might persuade them to join the movement. It also made the antivivisection movement a more risky one to join, with fewer opportunities for “successes” (e.g. shutting a lab down).

Join a movement

For our young impressionable potential-activist, deciding which cause to throw his time and effort behind, he or she may consider the following questions to themselves about each one. While it may be argued that the AV movement had a high profile in the early-mid 2000s, it was for the wrong reason, with people likely to bring up images of graverobbing and arson attacks. The increasing resilience of the animal research community was also making victories harder to come by (reducing the chance of success), and the police spotlight was also making it less attractive to new potential recruits. Instead our young activist may consider their time better spent challenging rising inequality (e.g. Occupy movements) or fighting against government badger culls (indeed many former antivivisection activists have recently moved to this issue). Diagrammatically (see first image) this can be seen as the teal arrows from supporters and activists to the supporting movements.

The professionalism of the AV movement means that competition is rife. AVOs compete to make the biggest stories or infiltrations. This means there is a pressure to make stories more dramatic (and exaggerated) than the previous one. The competition also causes successful tactics to be quickly imitated between organisations. A recent tactic by the Anti-Vivisection Coalition in the UK has been to send a Freedom of Information request (FOI) to universities asking for the number of animals they use in research, and then turning the answer into a press release for local news outlets (e.g. Brighton and Durham). This success quickly caused other animal rights groups to copy, with Animal Aid(vs University of Surrey) and the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) (vs University of Birmingham) to copy this strategy.

The money they are competing for is not small. A quick look at the BUAV’s accounts showed they spent around £200,000 in both 2012 and 2013 on “Investigations” as they attempt to create the biggest stories. The money involved is not small, the three largest AV organsiations in the UK had combined incomes exceeding £5 million and extremist AVG, SHAC, collected over £1 million from street collection tins. Much of the SHAC money ended up supporting full-time activist leaders who were not being salaried by tax-registered official organisations. As such, competition for this cash may be the reason behind some extremism as the pressure to become a leader – willing to risk all for the cause – was the difference between eating well or not at all.

This Resource Mobilisation Theory model of animal rights activism only touches the surface of the complexity of this movement. But hopefully helps to explain some of the activities of those within it. To discover more, please read the original article in EMBO Reports (DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837).

Tom Holder

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

This House Does Not Believe Animal Research is a Moral Hazard

A lively debate at the Trinity College Dublin Philosophical Society on Thursday rejected the motion that “This House Believes that Animal Testing is a Moral Hazard”.

Speaking of Research founder, Tom Holder, joined three students in explaining both the moral and scientific case for the continued use of animals in medical research. In opposition was the Director of Antidote Europe, Andre Menache, the Campaign Director of the Animal Rights Action Network, John Carmody, and two student speakers.


Speakers (L->R by row): Rachel Graham (s), Liam Hunt (s), Andre Menache, Tom Holder, John Carmody, Cormac Henehan (s), Ben Butler (s) and Claire Kelly (s) and Lorcan Clarke (President of The Philosophical Society). (s) denotes TCD student.

The debate was lively, with most students choosing to focus on the philosophical angle, developing and destroying arguments for and against animal rights, human contractualism and utilitarianism. Dr. Menache chose to focus on scientific issues, including TGN1412 and looking at recent developments in replacement heart valves. John Carmody expressed the view that students were a victim of society if they supported animal research, and suggested that animal rights was an inevitability. Tom Holder gave a well received speech that pointed to the past successes of animal research and explained the many levels of protection that animals in labs are afforded. He noted that Stage I clinical trial disasters such as TGN1412 were so rare because of animal safety tests, as well as supporting the advances in synthetic heart valves – pointing out that for many years there was no non-animal replacement  available. Holder wrapped by concluding that animal research was “not a moral hazard but a moral imperative“.

When the time to vote came, the nays took two-thirds of the chamber, out voting the ayes two to one. This house did not believe that animal research was a moral hazard.

How to Build an Action Network for Science

Across the world individuals and organisations misrepresent science for their own end. Such misinformation has been seen in the MMR vaccine-autism debate, the questions over the GM foods, and the causes and effects of climate change. More recently, a confused Republican Senate Nominee, Todd Akin, claimed that “the female body has ways to try and shut down” pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”. This misinformation is as rampant in the debate over animal research as it is over many other scientific areas already mentioned. Speaking of Research, as well as a host of others scientific organisations, have worked hard to debunk the huge amount of disinformation that is spread by animal rights groups.

There are broadly three ways in which disinformation propagates through the media – authorities, celebrities and public weight.

Authority involves bringing a respected authority to bear on the issue. Unfortunately for the animal rights lobby, their figures of authority – the few doctors who are against animal research – have been roundly discredited. The views of figures such as Dr. Menache, Dr. Greek and Dr. Vlasak have been overwhelmed by the medical community – In 2006 a survey of General Practitioners in Britain found that 93% agreed that “animal experiments have made an important contribution to the many advances in medicine”. Similarly high support can be found around the world by the medical and scientific community.

Nonetheless, it is important that those in a position to speak with authority on animal research do so. There are many stories in the newspapers which lack the voice of a scientist directly involved in such research. Universities and other research institutions must know that

Prof. David Jentsch is one those scientists who is unafraid to speak out about his work and the work of researchers like him

Celebrities often jump on what they see as a popular bandwagon in their support for the animal rights movement. What is more concerning is that many media outlets give more time to the views of these celebrities than to the scientists who would correct them. When the British media caught onto a story about child-blindness research on kittens at Cardiff University, it was the comedian Ricky Gervais who led the voices of unreason. Now I’m more than willing to listen to Gervais tell me about the current state of British stand up, or how to write a sitcom, but I am not interested in his views on which scientific methods for carrying out biomedical research are or are not a thing of the past. PeTA have been effective at bringing celebrities on board to their campaign against animal research and it is about high time that the public starts giving those celebrities some flak for it.

Next time you see Ricky Gervais, or any other celebrity, tweet something which condemns lifesaving biomedical research, tweet back a correction. Better still, get friends to tweet back. Declare a call to arms to correct the misinformation about science wherever it is. If done effectively, with numbers, we will hopefully see less celebrities keen to mouth off about something they know little about.

Public Weight is the mass of people who can be mobilised quickly to back a campaign or story. When groups like PeTA target an airline or ferry company that transports animals to research facilities, they can galvanise their followers to send thousands of emails and phone calls to these companies – many of whom have bowed under pressure. Animal rights groups can quickly fill up petitions, send thousands of emails to research institutions, weigh in on polls and fill up the comment sections of news articles with their misinformation.

The pro-research organisations need to be able to act similarly fast. By communicating stories, and alerting people to animal rights misinformation it is important that we bring the weight of scientists into discussions on the radio, in the newspapers and across the internet. Similarly, we need to get this same body of people to support the good work done by researchers – from sharing and “liking” pro-research stories, to adding your voice to discussions in the news and pointing out the role of animals, often missing from the headlines.


Tom Holder

Amblyopia, kittens and BUAV’s deception

Normal vision relies on healthy eyes, retinas, and their proper wiring of the brain structures that process visual information.  Light which enters the eye is sensed by photoreceptors on the retina.  The information is then transmitted via the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus and from there to the first stage of cortical visual processing, the primary visual cortex.

Amblyopia refers to the loss or reduction of vision from one eye because it is improperly wired to the brain structures that process visual information.  Even an eye with normal optics and retina may be weakly or incorrectly connected to the brain, resulting in substantial vision loss from that eye.

What causes amblyopia?  Frontal- eyed animals combine the images of the two eyes into a single image.  The process also yields the percept of depth — estimates of the distance of objects from the observer.  When then the two eyes receive very different scenes that cannot be fused into a single one, the brain opts to ignore information from one of the eyes.  This can happen when the eyes are misaligned and pointing in different directions (strabismus), or when the one eye is much more nearsighted, farsighted, or astigmatic compared to the other.

About 3% of children are affected by the condition and, unless it is treated during a period of high plasticity in the brain that may allow external factors to help the brain rewire, called the critical period, the loss of vision might be permanent as the adult visual system becomes hardwired. In other words, if we do not treat them amblyopic patients would be effectively blind from the input of the affected eye.

It is important to correct amblyopia for the simple reason that we are born with only two eyes.  Starting your life with only one good eye means your likelihood of going blind during your lifetime is much higher. Thanks to advances in medical research, we are living 25 years more than our grandparents; thus it makes sense to ensure our children start their lives with a pair of healthy eyes.

Animal rights activists argue that because blindness is not a life-threatening disease using animals in this type of research is not justified.  I concede blindness is not life threatening, but I ask you to participate in the following exercise — blindfold yourself for just one week and try to go about your daily activities — helping the kids to school, getting to and from work, shopping at the supermarket, doing the laundry, cooking, washing the dishes, assisting your children with homework, and so on.  Please return to the comments section of this blog and share with us what you have learned about blindness and the suffering it can cause. This is the suffering the research is intended to prevent and alleviate.

Some of these points were well expressed by a Cardiff University statement in response to the Mirror’s  negative coverage of these experiments which included an on-line poll asking readers to participate. The Mirror article elicited the response of scientific blogger PZ Myers who tried once more to explain the true reasons for such experiments and asked scientists to make their voices heard in the poll.  The Mirror, apparently disliking the trends in the results, responded with a re-poll. Aside from the obvious scientific invalidity of such internet polls, it is evident from the comments in the article that those who voted against such experiments fail to understand the impact of severe vision loss on quality of life and the methods of the research.  While they appear ready to rule out the use of animals in sight-saving research, the same population appears to think differently when it comes to ruling animals out of their dinner plates.

So let me explain again how animals are involved in these studies. To study the early wiring of the brain scientists have used frontal-eyed mammals that have an early visual cortex organized similarly to that of humans.  Kittens have historically been used in many of these developmental experiments because they have frontal eyes and binocular vision, and their visual cortex expresses ocular dominance columns as other higher mammals and humans do.  Such “columns” represent the amount of cortical territory that each eye takes during development which changes if one eye is weakened. Animal work has shown how different rearing conditions influence the balance the input of the eyes into the cortex, the timescales involved, and the effects of multiple reverse occlusion procedures on visual acuity.  Mice also have a small area of binocular vision where the cortex receives inputs from the two eyes and exhibit similar plastic changes. The study of the molecular pathways and events that lead to the opening and closing of the critical period are now being studied almost entirely in mice.

Finally, studying the normal wiring of the brain during development has potential benefits for many other areas of medicine.  Amblyopia serves as a general model of a developmental disorder of brain wiring. Understanding the factors that control the opening and closing of the critical is key not only for vision but other diseases. Specifically, if we understood the molecular events that open and close the critical period we could potentially learn how to open such a window of plasticity in the adult.  This would allow us not only to treat amblyopia in the adult, but also to enhance neural repair in many conditions that involve damage to neural tissue, such as in stroke.

We do not currently have non-invasive methods that would allow us to study normal and abnormal brain wiring during development in humans.  Animal models allow us to understand the molecular and cellular events that take place during development.  The experiments involve artificial closure of one eye and recording form brain structures while animals are fully anesthetized. The anesthetic plane is monitored continuously by measuring the heart rate, electrocardiogram, end-tidal CO2, and core temperature.  Such monitoring parallels and even exceeds what one may see in human surgeries. The animals are euthanized at the end of the procedure with an overdose of anesthetics — the same way your pet may be euthanized by your veterinarian.

It is outrageous, ignorant or simply deceptive for Nick Palmer of the BUAV to claim on the BBC during a debate with Tom Holder on the justification for this experiments that “you wake up the animal” during the electrophysiological recording procedures. This is flat wrong. Animals are anesthetized for both the surgical procedures, and continuously during the recordings.  They never regain consciousness as they are euthanized at the end of the experiment.

We all benefit from the medical advances of the past.  Animal research has undeniably contributed to such advances. Opting out of such research without a viable alternative would cause much human and animal suffering.  Inaction needs a moral justification, one that our opponents have yet to spell out on moral and scientific grounds.

Addendum: It’s worth remembering that the Mirror – a British tabloid that is characterised by all the usual vices associated with such publications – has a history of making false allegations against scientists. Back in the 1980’s its Sunday edition was obliged to print a Press Council ruling that an earlier report on amblyopia research performed by the neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore was “exaggerated, unbalanced and unfair”. It seems that the Mirror is still living up to its “gutter press” reputation.

The Speaker’s Corner Trust Debate

The Speakers’ Corner Trust  —  a charity organization that promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship — recently organized a debate on the role of animals in research. Michelle Thew of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) debated Tom Holder of Speaking of Research.

In her opening remarks Ms. Thew compared the non-consensual experimentation on human beings, such as those performed by the Nazis, to the use of animals in medical research.  She stated:

The BUAV strenuously opposes such experiments. The fact that they may advance medical science (as they are much more likely to do than experiments on animals) is no justification. It is simply not fair on the victims.

In other words, the claim is that if experimenting on non-consensual humans is wrong, then it must be wrong to experiment on animals as well.  This is true only if one adheres to the view that there is no morally relevant difference between a mouse and a human.  This is a key difference between our respective ethical positions. We agree that most people believe that all living beings are worthy of moral consideration.  Animal rights activists insist, in addition, that we owe all living beings the same moral consideration as any human.

Tom Holder pointed out some obvious implications of the animal rights view, such as the obvious fact that given such moral equivalence, eating a salmon would be equally wrong as eating your neighbor’s child.  Given the vastly larger number of animals used as food versus those used in medical research one can only wonder why BUAV does not focus its efforts in abolishing animal food rather than trying to eliminate life-saving medical research.  As it turns out, there is no British Union for the Abolition of Animal Food, which only shows the moral confusion and upside-down priorities of animal activists.

Ms. Thew is of the deplorable opinion that scientists use animals in research merely “because we have to power to subjugate them.” To which Tom Holder responded:

We do not research using animals simply because we can. It is the human ability to empathise with others and to have the tools to confront disease by means of scientific research that calls for us to act in the face of so much suffering. It is a moral dilemma that must be confronted.

Animal rights activists like Ms. Thew believe that they have the moral upper hand and that it is those that experiment on animals that offer a moral justification.  Not so. Those that oppose the work must offer an ethical justification for not acting when we can.  As an example, if we can find a therapy for breast cancer using mice, why shouldn’t we?  Is it merely because they assert our moral concern for a mouse ought to be the same as that for a mother dying of cancer and her family?

The truth is that if opponents could make a convincing ethical argument against animal research then this is where the debate would stop.  Humankind would concede the work is unethical and it would stop — as it was the case for slavery.  But because their ethical argument fails, they decide to attack the science instead. Thus, in the second part of the debate Ms. Thew denies the past benefits of the research, deplores the use of animals to understand fundamental biological processes in basic research, declares the existence of alternatives to the work and the reluctance of scientists to use them (never mind that it is scientists that actually develop and promote them), and that many drugs fail in the course of development (as one would expect from the very  nature of scientific work).  In the words of Tom Holder

The BUAV seems to have constructed a grand conspiracy theory according to which pharmaceuticals, governments, scientists and the medical community are all conspiring to suppress the “truth” that animal research doesn’t work. Similarly, the findings of highly respected polling organisations like Gallup and Mori, both of which show the public firmly behind animal research, must be “selective” because they don’t meet BUAV’s expectations.

What’s the reality? Understanding disease is a complex challenge, but there is no denying that animal research has contributed immensely to alleviating the suffering of humans and animals alike.

BUAV’s mission states that their goal is to “create a world where nobody wants or believes we need to experiment on animals.”  We share their goal, but it is scientists who actually work to create a world where there will no longer be a scientific need for the use animals to advance medicine and human health. So please, start supporting our work instead of misleading the public, denying the science, and irresponsibly suggesting that we can suspend the work immediately without grave consequences which include much human and animal suffering.

Benefits of Animal Research, Right Down to the Letter

It’s always exciting, in this day and age, to get a letter that isn’t spam. Even more exciting when the letter is from another continent. And even more when it’s a letter as supportive and insightful as this one (full text below).

Dear Tom Holder:

I am a freshman studying at Orange County High School of the Arts. In my literature class, I recently gave a political speech addressing the benefits of animal research. I understand that your organization strongly encourages animal research. Allow me to thank you for actively supporting the use of animals in biomedical research by inspiring students and scientists to speak out in favor of animal research.

With animal testing, the world’s life expectancy is remarkably high. From the eradication of polio and small pox to breast cancer treatments, animal research has proved to be fundamental to the well being of this species. Viruses, diseases, and illnesses should never get in the way of our country’s success. By means of animal research, we have several vaccines and prescriptions available to the country to prevent these. Conventional wisdom states that animal testing implies animal abuse. But in reality, most scientists build up strong attachments to the animals they use in their experiments. Public misconceptions about alternatives to animal testing remain high, In vitro testing, MRI scanning, computer modeling and micro dosing are al vital, but these aspects of medicine simply compliment animal testing. One cannot purely find a replacement to animal research. Animal research should therefore not only be allowed, it must be strongly encouraged.

Animal research is irreplaceable and crucial to medical progress. Thus, thank you for standing up for science by founding several organizations similar to Speaking of Research. Please continue inspiring others and encouraging students, like me, to speak out for the benefits of animal research.


Momachi Pabrai
(reprinted with permission of author)

I congratulate Momachi for standing up among her colleagues to tell them of the benefits of animal research. Her letter shows that she has clearly thought through this controversial issue. Momachi hits upon the key ideas of why animal research is done. Namely:

  1. It is crucial to medical development; and
  2. It is currently irreplaceable

She includes examples such as the polio vaccine and breast cancer treatments (e.g. Herceptin) to back up her arguments. This is an example of how anyone, no matter what their scientific background, can make the case for animal research.

On behalf of Speaking of Research I wish Momachi all the best in the rest of her freshman year.


Tom Holder

Big Questions, but few answers from opponents of animal research

A recent edition of the BBC1 Program called “The Big Questions” offered a brief debate on animal research. Among those discussing the issues was SR’s founder, Tom Holder. Within this post we will discuss some of the many issues which were touched upon, but barely explored in this brief debate.

Some of the questions centered on moral issues, other on scientific ones. At the beginning of the discussion Prof. John Stein of Oxford University explained his use of monkeys in studying Parkinson’s disease, after which he was asked if he would experiment on great apes.  He replied he would not, unless there was some extreme circumstance that required them.

Where would you draw the line?” — countered the host.

Let us pause for a second here. This is an important question that is worth asking. But first let us consider – and reject all the theories that do not involve drawing any lines at all.  What theories are these?

One is the Cartesian view, which posits animals do not truly suffer, do not really have emotions, and do not really have interests of their own. Consequently, the Cartesian view is that humans can use animals as we please. We do not know any living scientist or philosopher that would seriously defend this view.

The other theory that does not draw any lines is the animal rights view, in which all living beings have the same basic rights to freedom and life as a normal human. Although most members of the public reject this view as making no sense at all, nobody in the panel cared to explain, nor did the host bother to ask, what justifies this stance.

What Prof. Stein articulated as a justification was a version of something called the sliding scale model.  Here, the moral weight of a living being’s interests depends on the individual’s degree of cognitive, affective and social complexity. Where we draw the line for different types of experiments in animals is a valid and important question, but we can only ask it that if we all agree with the notion of graded moral status.

Opponents of research reject such a theory.  Alistair Currie, from PeTA, stated:

Suffering is suffering.  We have a moral obligation not to impose it on anybody.”

We generally agree that unnecessary suffering should not be imposed on other living beings, and as Prof. Stein stressed, scientists work hard to ensure that suffering is eliminated or reduced to an absolute minimum in laboratory animals. We do not think there are absolute moral principles.  Even “thou shall not kill” permits exceptions, such as in the case of self defense. Another example is the infliction of harm to other human beings that was, for most of us, morally justified and necessary when it came to liberating the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

If we truly had an absolute moral obligation to never impose suffering on anybody, as PeTA representative Currie suggests, liberating concentrations camps would be morally wrong. We might accept such a declaration from someone who is a declared pacifist, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that PeTA is a far from being such an organization.  PeTA remains morally confused.

Invariably, when opponents of animal research fail to make an ethical case for their position, they attack the science. In this case, it was Kailah Eglington, representing the Dr Hadwen Trust, who was in charge of this strategy.

“Scientifically looking at the facts, the animal model is flawed.” — she declared without even blinking.

Wait a second. Where was she when Prof. Stein explained how he found an area of the brain that when inactivated could relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s? How does she explain his success?  Or does she deny the benefits of the work?

Ms. Eglington also suggested that Prof. Stein could have used non-invasive methods in humans, such as MEG, suggesting the same information could be obtained by this techniques. As Prof. Stein pointed out in his response this is flatly wrong. Prof. Stein not only uses a range of such techniques, including MEG and fMRI alongside his studies in macaques, but with his colleagues at Oxford University pioneered the use of MEG as a research method in patients undergoing deep brain stimulation. However, none of the non-invasive methods can yield the same data that one obtains using micro-electrode recordings from the brain, as we discussed in an earlier post on the limitations of fMRI.

A quick visit to the Dr. Hawden Trust web-site reveals that they state with absolute certainty that:

Alternatives to animal experimentation are available in virtually every field of medical research.”

Wow…   Let’s be clear: this is complete utter nonsense that deserves to be filed here. Should we be surprised at the lack of sensible science by someone who, on the side, founded an organization which claims that “the power of positive thinking” can treat physically debilitating conditions.

Kailah Eglington furthered her pseudo-scientific nonsense by claiming that: “9 out of 10 drugs that are tested on animals successfully fail in humans“. The problem here is the mistaken blame on the animal model – these same drugs have already passed pre-clinical non-animal tests such as cell cultures and computer models; moreover, about 90% of drugs fail at every stage of development – meaning that 90% of those that pass early clinical trials in humans still fail to make it to market – this is not something we can blame the animal model for. We have previously written a full and clear rebuttal of the 90% claim – however it continues to be used by the animal rights community.

Such examples go to show a common problem for advocates of science – that it takes a lot longer to debunk junk science, than it does to make it up. While Tom Holder and Prof. Stein argued science’s case very well the debate highlighted some of the limitations of this format, though perhaps this is all we can expect from a format that tries to address Big Questions in 15 min of television programming.  It seems the goal here is more to get opposing sides to have a screaming contest rather than to provide an opportunity for thoughtful exploration of the questions at hand.

Speaking of Research