Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin

Conversation Starter? PETA’s Bus Ads on University of Wisconsin Hearing Research

As predicted, PETA’s ongoing campaign against scientific research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison continues, escalating this week with a striking advertisement on 100 Metro buses. The ad calls for an end to UW research aimed at better understanding how the brain processes sound. A central question is how sound arriving at both ears is combined to allow us to determine the direction of its source with respect to our body. Sound localization ability allows us, for example, to quickly react to an approaching car that we might not have seen. In turn, this kind of basic understanding has provided the knowledge necessary to help people with hearing disorders and to guide the way for cochlear implants. It is the work of a highly respected scientist, Professor Tom Yin, whose discoveries and research have been funded by the National Institutes of Health for decades. His research is publicly funded because the scientific leadership of our country determined that the work is important to serve the public’s interest in advancing scientific understanding and public health. Furthermore, and contrary to PETA’s claims, the  cats are healthy and treated humanely, in accord with federal regulation, as demonstrated by the public reporting of thorough oversight by multiple federal agencies.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

The ads that PETA is running on the buses don’t mention that.  What they do instead is show a picture of a cat, a participant in the research and the phrase “I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments.”

The picture is one PETA obtained from an open records request. Video of the research, many pictures, and interviews of the scientists whose research is targeted can be found here. The PeTA ads also don’t mention that both the US Department of Agriculture and the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare investigated PeTA’s complaints and cleared Prof. Yin and UW of any wrongdoing.

We have written previously (here, here, here) in detail about PETA’s sustained efforts to use the federal regulatory system to end the UW’s sound localization research. We’ve also written about their other approaches to generate public and media attention – ranging from celebrity protests at the UW Board of Regents meeting to Bill Maher robocalls to an MMA fighting game where players are encouraged in violence (and sending emails to NIH opposing UW’s research).

Through all of this, PETA has made their position quite clear. Their goal is to end animal research regardless of the consequences for human and animal health, regardless of public interests.

While PETA’s campaigns are marketed as concern about animal welfare, even a superficial analysis quickly shows that it is not their central mission. After all, this is the same group with an abysmal record of killing the cats and dogs in their care.  Furthermore, it seems unlikely that PETA’s investment in various campaigns is proportional to the number of animals involved in different uses. Only a tiny fraction of animals are used in research, in contrast to the vast majority in food, clothing, entertainment, service, and companionship. Yet animal research remains a major investment for PETA campaigns.

What PETA is aiming for when it targets animal research, particularly when it invests so much effort and so many resources to shut down a program involving only a dozen animals is political and obvious. They have selected a target that they believe will capture public emotion and sentiment in a way that serves a broader political goal that otherwise would be difficult to raise public attention and support.

In all of these campaigns, PETA is banking on a couple of expectations. First, that the public will not take the time to learn more about the research. Second, that the scientific, medical, advocacy, and patient groups will decline to engage or counter PETA’s outrageous claims. If, and when, those expectations are no longer met, PETA will lose its power to detract from a serious, civil and public consideration of science, medicine, and animal research.

For that reason, we believe that it is a critical responsibility of our community to continue to provide clear, factual, and responsive engagement to the public—regardless of how silly or wrong PETA’s tactics appear.

In the case of the Madison Metro bus ad campaign, we encourage the public and journalists who are interested in learning about the science– why it is conducted, the discoveries of the scientific team, the clinical applications, and the treatment of the animals—to take the time to learn more. The scientist and the University of Wisconsin have written extensively about the work. They have placed videos, photographs, interviews, papers, and point-by-point responses to PETA’s allegations in public view (more here). In fact, the scientist targeted by PETA for several years has provided a lab tour and interview to a local journalist.

Representatives of the university administration and animal research program have also consistently engaged with the media in a way that goes far beyond boilerplate responses and the university has hosted public discussions that have included contributions from both scientists and animal rights activists. At the time when PETA first made their allegations 65 of Prof. Yin’s colleagues even backed an Op-Ed piece written for the local newspaper. In other words – and no surprise –there is more to the story than a bus shrink-wrapped with a PETA billboard.  UW-Madison has made that clear time and again, with consistent and sustained effort to provide the public with clear, factual information and to engage when questions are asked.  More than that though, they also have a strong track record and commitment to science education and outreach in a great many venues.

While it is tempting to dismiss PETA’s tactics, it is worth public consideration that there is a sure long-term harm of acting on PETA’s commands without understanding the consequences to public interests, public health and the science that serves all of us. The scientific, academic, advocacy, patient, and other communities, on the other hand, know the value of the work that Prof. Yin and his colleagues are doing and can view this latest campaign as yet another time to speak up for the research.

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.

Closing your eyes may open your heart

A statement of fact can be falsified by presenting a single counterexample.  For example, the claim that “Pigs don’t fly” can be proven false by just finding one that does. Similarly, the claim that “we owe the same moral consideration to all sentient living beings” can be falsified by considering scenarios where acting on such moral principle would lead us to conclusions we find utterly unacceptable.

In my recent visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison we discussed the simple scenario of choosing among a mouse and a human being in a burning house. I explained that the moral principle above calls for us to either flip a coin to make an unbiased decision or let both individuals die.  And yet, nearly all people in the audience would save the human being.  Why? The reason is that we recognize that the same things are not at stake.  In the words of the animal rights philosopher Tom Regan:

“[...] the harm that death is, is a function if the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses, and no reasonable person would deny that the death of any [...] human would be a greater prima facie loss, and thus a greater prima facie harm, that would be true in the case [of] a dog.”

Indeed, it is very difficult to find a reasonable human being that would insist on flipping a coin (yes, you may still run into one or two unreasonable animal rights extremists).  However, the fact that the conclusion is against the moral intuition of most of people suggests we ought to reject the premise as stated above and, with it, moral theories that rely on it.

It is very important to point out that rejecting the premise does not imply at all human interests trump non-human interests all the time.  This is wrong and not something I believe. As an example, I agree that the interests of animals must count when we plan a new urban development.  Indeed, we provide for discussion of environmental impact studies within our communities ahead of its approval.  And there are cases where we decide, with proper justification, that the interests of the animals living in the area trump those of human interests in development.

It is common for an animal rights activists to respond to the burning house scenario by insisting they may be justified in saving the family dog over a despicable human being, such as Hitler.

Once again, this reply is based on the mistaken idea that that rejecting the premise means that human interests should always trump animal interests.  This is not so.  Rejecting the premise means that not all living beings are due the same moral consideration. As a matter of fact, the very notion that we may find it justifiable to save the family dog over Hitler is just one more counterexample to the same premise. If anything, the activists are making my point exactly.

Those who oppose the use of animals in medical research also appear to have difficulty looking at the faces of patients that our work has saved and continues to save every day.  The reason is that these are the patients that would have been harmed if the research of the past had been stopped.  I presented a brief a video of one such breast cancer patient.  You can watch it again below. Two typical responses to seeing the patients are “but you are appealing to emotion!” and “but you don’t work on cancer!”

Indeed, it is true that facing the patients can evoke difficult emotions.  Human emotional suffering is… well, emotional.  It is also suffering.  When a mother with cancer ponders about the consequences of dying for her husband and children she suffers beyond the physical pain of the disease.  And if suffering is morally relevant (as the philosophers argue) then such suffering must count as well.

As to the charge that I don’t do cancer research.  It is true, I don’t.  But why are the activists bringing this up now? Do they all of a sudden approve of cancer research? Do the approve of AIDS research?  Do the approve of Parkinson’s?  Alzheimer’s? Or do they object to my research alone?  The latter would indeed be huge step forward.  Of course, this is not what they mean. Lacking substantive arguments to respond, they merely shift the goalposts to a different topic, such asking about the use of animals for food or my own research.

Very well… so what about my own research?  Like many of my colleagues supported by the National Eye Institute we work on trying to understand how the visual system works to alleviate and/or cure central disorders of vision. I could go on to explain the details but, before one even has the chance to do so, the animal rights activists retort — “but blindness is not a life-threatening disease!”

At this point your jaw may drop as the comment makes it clear that they have not paused for even for one second to consider the effects that blindness or low vision can have on our quality of life. This is curious for a movement that claims to be based on compassion. Failing to consider the consequences of a disease for a patient is nothing but compassionate. It is truly cruel.

I can offer a simple challenge to all those activists out there who believe that the use of animals in research to study vision disorders is unjustified.  Blindfold yourself for just one month and go about your daily activities. Did you life change in any way?  What about the life of your family members that may need to devote time to helping you?  What happened to your independence?

Only after you have gone through the trouble of truly considering the cost of the vision loss, for the patients and their families, I will welcome you back to the comments section below so you can share with all of us your experience.

I can only hope that that having your eyes closed for a month may open your heart… even if just a bit.

Go ahead now…  close your eyes.

PeTA: When everything else fails, bring out a celebrity

Opponents of the use of animals in medical research have failed to make a compelling scientific and moral argument against the work. Having repeated the same arguments for more than a century, and recognizing they are unlikely to succeed in the future, their strategies have shifted towards the simple goal of interfering and obstructing animal research in any way possible.

A common tactic is to bring serious allegations against a scientist and University to the agencies responsible for regulating and monitoring the work, such as USDA and NIH. In this line of work, PeTA has been campaigning intensively against the use of cats in experiments aimed at developing the next generation of cochlear implants at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Cochlear implant

Studies on cats have been crucial to the development of the next generation of cochlear implants

The organization filed multiple complaints against the university claiming that the work had violated the animal welfare act.  Three different federal inspections were launched by the NIH, USDA and OLAW at great expense to the taxpayers and to the University.

The bottom line: PeTA’s allegations were baseless.

So what can you expect PeTA to do?

First, they will deny the outcome of the investigators. Indeed, PeTA’s Justin Goodman, their “director of laboratory investigations”, said in an interview he disagreed with the report’s conclusions, and added “we’re disappointed that the NIH downplayed major animal welfare violations.”

Mr. Goodman should read the report once again — there were no major animal welfare violations found. Period. He is simply disappointed to have been proven wrong. Of course, PeTA probably knew this to be the case even before submitting the complaints. The goal was simply to harass the scientists, interrupt the work and get some free press coverage.

Second, and before anyone can take notice, PeTA will try to distract any media coverage away from the factual findings of the investigations by concocting a celebrity stunt. In this case, it was the turn of comedian Bill Maher, who recorded a voice message against the research which was delivered by robocall to every phone with an  area code surrounding the University.

“It strikes me that it’s not the cats who need their heads examined, because being mean to animals isn’t just stupid—it’s wrong, especially when there are better options that are actually relevant to humans, as there are in this case,” he says in the message.

If there are noninvasive methods that would allow scientists to measure and understand how sounds from the two hears are combined by the brain at timescales of microseconds to estimate their direction of arrival we are ready to be enlightened. The most likely scenario, unfortunately, is that he just does not know what he is talking about.  What is truly mean and stupid is to scientists are using animals when other options are available.

I know, my opinions are hardly news.  The case for Bill Maher’s ignorance on scientific topics ranging from germ theory to vaccinations has been made multiple times and there is no need to repeat them here.  (You are welcome to read here, here, here, here, here, here, …. well, I hope you get the idea.)

It strikes me that if there is anyone who needs his head examined is the one who denies scientific facts, such as the protection offered by vaccines and medications, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

It strikes me as stupid that any reasonable member of the public would listen to the opinion of a comedian on important health issues, rather than listening to their physicians, the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control, or the medical leadership of our country.

It strikes me as dangerous and irresponsible for a joker to offer public health advice against vaccinations when we know exactly what would happen if we followed his recommendations. It is difficult to say but, I would venture to guess that Maher’s advice to his followers may have already killed more humans than the number of cats used in the experiments he opposes.

It strikes me as hypocritical that Bill Maher objects so vociferously to the use of a dozen cats in a multi-year research program to advance medical devices in important hearing research that complies with existing laws and regulations, when PeTA euthanizes thousands of pets in any one year. Do you want to take a closer look? Here are some pictures allegedly of PeTA’s operations.

Finally, It strikes me as nothing short of obscene that any public figure would support an organization like PeTA that encourages its followers to fantasize about the possibility of physically harming scientists and anyone else who do not agree with their philosophy.

It strikes me as if Bill Maher is nothing more than a really bad joke.

And so is PeTA.

Animal welfare inspectors clear UW-Madison cat research of PETA allegations, important hearing research continues

A second federal agency charged with oversight of animal research has completed a thorough investigation of an animal rights group’s complaints about sound localization research with cats at the University of Wisconsin. Summary of the result:  “there was no direct noncompliance with the PHS Policy or serious deviation from the provisions of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.”

We have written previously (here, here, here) about reviews conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This time the report is from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW).  Once again, the complaint by PETA is based on hundreds of pages of records that the animal rights group received from the UW via open records requests.  In response to these complaints both federal agencies have sent teams that include veterinarians to look at the animals, records, and research at UW-Madison.

new graphic - AR cycle 10.07.13 ajbIn addition to the USDA and OLAW reviews, during this period the NIH institute funding the sound localization project, the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDCD), also took action. NIDCD suspended one part of the research— but not the entire project— from April-September 2013 when the final report was issued. Whether the suspension was the result of PETA’s allegations is not clear. What is clear is that the NIH and scientific community have long supported and valued this specific research and– more broadly–  the contribution of animal models to success in this field and advances in scientific understanding and human health. The PI of this work, Professor Tom Yin, has been funded by NIH for many years. As is the case of all NIH-funded research, a competitive expert scientific panel provides rigorous critical analysis of the proposed science. Only a small fraction of proposals are identified as valuable, worthwhile, and likely to succeed. In this case, the PI’s research was deemed justifiable and worthy following scientific review, NIH review, and IACUC review. Furthermore, the scientific contributions Yin’s work is evident in many ways. For example, it is widely cited in the field (e.g., over 5000 citations of his scientific papers). Yin discusses the targeted research in these videos:

In brief, Professor Yin’s laboratory conducts fundamental basic research that has resulted in better understanding of complex brain function and how hearing works. By using a combination of electrophysiological recordings, anatomical studies and behavioral studies, the lab is studying the mechanisms used by the brain to put together inputs from the two ears to improve hearing. The scientific discoveries have public benefit because they provide foundational understanding with broad applicability. Knowing how the brain integrates sound received by both ears and how that allows for localization of sounds is an important part of work towards improving the quality of life and functioning of millions of people with hearing impairment.

Many types of research in this area require recording and studying a real functioning brain, there are no non-animal alternatives. Cats are among the best animal models for this work for a number of reasons. Among them: most of the information we have about the auditory system comes from studies in cats, they are nocturnal hunters with excellent sound localization abilities, and what we know about the cat’s nervous system shows that it is very similar to that of humans. The importance of cats and other animal models to research in this field is widely acknowledged, including by this year’s Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and particularly the work of Graeme Clarke, which laid the foundations for the development of multichannel cochlear implants through studies in cats and rats.

As we have discussed previously, consideration of the use of animals in research includes not only weighing its potential benefits, but also evaluation of the animals’ welfare. The welfare of all of research animals is a priority and one that is ensured through the careful efforts of research, veterinary, and animal care personnel. Furthermore, oversight of animals’ care and treatment occurs at individual, institutional, and federal levels. A small number of cats (less than a dozen) participate in UW-Madison’s sound localization research. The cats are healthy and well-adjusted to their work, play, and living environments as was documented in the OLAW report. In that report, external reviewers who had thoroughly reviewed the lab and records, examined the animals, and interviewed the animal care and veterinary personnel, research staff, and scientists were satisfied with the animals’ condition and treatment.  Potential for pain or suffering is minimized through careful efforts: Surgery is performed under deep anesthesia, just like surgery for humans. Infections are a risk, but they affect the animals only a fraction of the time they are in study. Furthermore, infections are caught early through extensive and careful monitoring, treated immediately and resolved quickly in all but a very small number of cases. In no cases are they allowed to be untreated or to cause suffering or unrelieved pain.

OLAW’s summary conclusion, released September 30, confirmed that the research and animal treatment were appropriate: “there was no direct noncompliance with the PHS Policy or serious deviation from the provisions of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.” Furthermore, the report concluded that PETA’s specific allegations were unsupported. The report also acknowledged UW’s efforts to continue refinement in the animals’ care and treatment:  “OLAW found that while the specific allegations did not accurately reflect the entire clinical and research condition of the cats, changes were made to enhance the care of the animals and potentially improve research outcomes.” Furthermore, the report includes many extremely positive descriptions of the animals’ condition and care.

UW responded:

“The OLAW investigation is the third review of the lab and its animal subjects by the federal government, all instigated by PETA within the past year. To date, none of the many allegations of mistreatment made by the organization to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or OLAW have been substantiated. ‘Contrary to the misleading claims made by PETA, the conclusions cited in the OLAW report reflect our view that the animals in the study are in excellent health, are well treated and cared for, and used to further important research in an appropriate and humane manner,’ says Dan Uhlrich, UW-Madison associate vice chancellor for research policy.  ‘Significant university and federal resources have been repeatedly redirected to respond to these unfounded allegations. This is a questionable use of scarce and valuable public resources, which we feel damages the best interests of the public, science, affected researchers, and the dedicated animal care and veterinary staffs responsible for the health and wellbeing of our animals.”

The OLAW summary report, including 36 appendix exhibits, can be found on their website. The UW has also shared detailed information about the research, the reviews, and the animal program with the broad public via its website, release of hundreds of records, and videos in which the scientist and others speak about the value of the work and how it is conducted.  In other words, as we’ve noted before, there are many venues for the public to learn more about the work, its conduct, and the detailed process of regulatory oversight.

What was PETA’s response?

Hint:  It did not include acknowledgement that OLAW, USDA, and the University of Wisconsin gave serious consideration to PETA’s complaint, performed a thorough investigation, and provided a detailed, specific public response on each of the allegations that the animal rights group raised. Nor did PETA’s response include an acknowledgement that perhaps they were wrong.  And nothing in their public responses indicated – front and center – that PETA’s mission and objective is to end all animal research. PETA’s position is fundamentally absolutist. Regardless of animals’ welfare and regardless of the consequences for the public that benefits from responsible, ethical and humanely-conducted animal studies, PETA is opposed to all use of nonhuman animals. Thus, there are presumably no conditions under which PETA would find laboratory animal research acceptable. (We welcome correction from PETA if this is a misrepresentation of their position.)

It is not surprising then that, as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal, PETA’s spokesman did not accept the OLAW conclusion, but rather vowed:  “This campaign is going to continue until that lab is empty and there are no cats in it,’” Goodman said without specifying the group’s next steps.”

PETA’s next steps in its quest to close the laboratory will probably include some of the characteristic stunts for which they are famous. At the UW this has included small protests on campus, the PETA mobile billboard truck driving around Madison, and an actor and PETA staffer gaining media coverage for disruption and arrest at a UW System Board of Regents meeting. Review of their campaign strategy thus far provides a few other clues for what to expect at the UW and elsewhere. For example, last week PETA set up at the campus job fair to recruit for an “undercover investigator.”  PETA’s Jeremy Beckham netted a local television interview with the tactic. Not a new tactic for animal rights groups, as seen in this campaign directed at Oregon Health Sciences University several years ago.

As we’ve written before however, focusing on these stunts and underestimating the broader gains that PETA has made and that negatively affect science and public interests can be a mistake.  In the case of this campaign and all of the associated events, two things in particular are worth notice by the broader community.  First, the way in which PETA used the openness of records and the public responsiveness of the regulatory process to feed their campaign; and second, the use of emotive tactics that encourage harassment of scientists and others in research institutions. The graphic above captures the general strategy used by many activist groups, highlights the costs, and raises a number of questions. In particular, one question that merits serious discussion is how to better assess the full range of actual costs and critical evaluation of realized benefits to animal welfare, science, and public interests.

Despite the conclusion of multiple federal reviews that failed to support their allegations, PETA is continuing to smear the research and to promote petition and email campaigns to the NIH, UW-Madison, and others. As one of the exhibits in the OLAW report shows, the NIDCD received 562 phone calls and approximately 190,000 emails about cat research. While that represents a tiny fraction of the American public and likely includes many form messages, its inclusion in the OLAW report suggests it may have been relevant to the NIH’s response.  No doubt that number increased after PETA linked a form email to its mixed martial arts assault on scientists videogame in order to encourage players to complain to NIH about the UW research.  Of course the game also encourages players to entertain the idea of harming scientists. As we’ve seen before, these highly emotional tactics can have the general effect of eliciting threatening and disturbing messages from those who follow PETA. For example, this recent tweet:

Beth Carter 10.5.13 tweet

The PETA campaign and response following the USDA and OLAW reports makes their objective clear once again:  to end research and close labs. Nothing new there. The question to ask now however, is how research institutions, scientists, federal agencies, and the public should respond to campaigns like this. In particular, this set of events provides additional strong evidence that there is little broad value in engagement with groups that have a singular agenda and little interest in serious dialogue, accuracy, or acknowledgement of the complex issues and choices in animal research conducted for public benefit.  For scientists and research institutions interested in dialogue and better understanding of animal research, using that time and energy to communicate directly with the public about their research, why they are doing it and what it involves makes more sense.

More here:




Extending a Public Conversation on the Ethics of Animal Research

The following is commentary by Prof. Robert Streiffer on a previous post by Dario Ringach. It was originally published on a UW-Madison website but  was subsequently removed.  It is being republished here with his permission, with Dario’s reply to it being published on SR tomorrow.

On March 11, 2013, Rick Marolt and I engaged in a public conversation about the ethics of animal research. Dario Ringach, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UCLA and contributor to the blog, Speaking of Research, posted an entry with questions and comments about the exchange. I wanted to take this opportunity to extend the public conversation by responding to Professor Ringach. I appreciate Ringach’s attention to our exchange on this significant issue, but some of his criticisms are based on misinterpretations of what I said, and so I welcome this opportunity to clarify my remarks (some of which were probably quite cryptic), respond to some of his criticisms, highlight areas where he and I agree, and acknowledge one issue where I overstated my concern. (I should note that I am only considering Ringach’s remarks as they concern my part of the conversation.)

Ringach’s comments relevant to my remarks are in the sections of his post entitled “The good,” The curious”, “Mind the gap,” “the bad,” and “the inconsistent,” and I will address them in that order.

The Good
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for Ringach’s expression of support for the event. I think that engaging in this kind of public dialogue about the ethics of animal research helps overcome the polarization of the debate, and helps improve peoples’ understanding of both the scientific and ethical aspects of animal research. In addition, participating in these kinds of public discussions is a core part of the service component of my job as a professor at a public university. So, I am grateful for Ringach’s supportive words on this point.

The Curious:
Ringach is puzzled by the fact that Marolt and I spent such a long time discussing utilitarianism. I agree that the discussion of utilitarianism went on for too long. The intention was to start with utilitarianism and then to spend more time exploring other frameworks. However, contrary to what Ringach claims, we did not assume that scientists are always utilitarians, or that the only justification for animal research must appeal to utilitarianism. First, I noted that most people who support animal research think that utilitarianism does not correctly capture our obligations to human beings. Second, I pointed out that even though supporters of animal research sometimes describe themselves as utilitarians-when-it comes-to-animals-but-rights-theorists-when-it comes-to human-beings (whom I refer to as “hybrid utilitarians”), they are probably not accurately characterizing their own views. For example, I expect that when they reflect on their obligations to their own pets, they probably believe that there are ways in which it would be wrong to treat their pets even though doing so would maximize utility.

Nonetheless, both utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism are commonly invoked or are implicitly presupposed in attempts to justify animal research, and so do merit discussion.

As an example of one non-utilitarian view, Ringach’s cites his own article, “The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research.” The “sliding-scale” framework he presents there is certainly not utilitarian. It accords rights to individuals that are “able to participate as autonomous rational agents in our moral community,” it accords a higher degree of moral status to individuals with a higher degree of “cognitive, affective, and social complexity” (although he later modifies the framework so that an individual’s moral status is affected by his or her relational properties), and it requires that the interests of individuals with a higher moral status be given priority over the interests of individuals with a lower degree of moral status. But Ringach never specifies how the sliding-scale framework adjudicates a conflict of interest between individuals who don’t have rights and who possess the same degree of moral status, and so, for all he has said, the sliding-scale framework could still take a utilitarian form with respect to such conflicts. If it does, such a framework would still be subject to a concern similar to the one I raised about utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism.

That concern notwithstanding, I highly recommend Ringach’s article as a presentation of the pro-animal-research position. It is one of the few papers by a scientist that explicitly and concisely explores not just several of the empirical aspects of the debate but also many of the philosophical aspects as well. And I certainly endorse Ringach’s call for more scientists to publicly discuss their views on the science and ethics of animal research rather than to leave it to others to speculate and hypothesize about what their views are.

Mind the Gap
Ringach is correct that discussing examples of actual research that Marolt would find ethical would have helpfully highlighted some common ground and led to a more productive and balanced discussion. I will try to keep this in mind for future reference.

I would note, though, that this point needs to be applied in a fair way: many animal researchers are reluctant to publicly discuss examples of actual research that they find unethical, even though doing so would also help highlight common ground and lead to more productive and balanced discussions. For example, Ringach’s article which I mentioned above never acknowledges any actual examples of unethical animal research.

The Bad
In this section, Ringach presents what appears to be his most pressing concern. It stems from my concurrence with Marolt’s view that, if all a study does is produce knowledge for a researcher or a community of researchers without that knowledge ever ultimately leading to any further benefits, then the knowledge produced is not a very significant benefit. Ringach says that this view, which he inaccurately summarizes in the words “knowledge is not a significant benefit,” is an “insult to reason” that betrays a misunderstanding of the scientific process and a failure to appreciate negative results in science. Ringach thinks that this view implies that I must not see much value in abstract mathematics, space exploration, physics, or astronomy, and that I must be “oblivious” to the fact that basic research has led to many medical imaging technologies.

I won’t speak for Marolt, but Ringach’s concerns here regarding what I said are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the two key points I was making and ignores almost the entirety of what I said regarding them. I therefore welcome this opportunity to clarify and expand on my views.

The first key point I was making is that there is a distinction between knowledge and benefit per se and that research, in the first instance, produces knowledge, not benefit. The phrases “in the first instance” and “per se” are important here. While knowledge often leads to benefits, research can produce knowledge without producing any benefit at all. However, this conceptual point does not imply that research that does not produce benefits is not valuable, as there is also a distinction between the concept of a benefit, which I take to be an improvement in individual well-being, and the more general concept of value. It is thus perfectly consistent to say that something is not itself a benefit and that it does not lead to benefits while maintaining that it is nonetheless valuable. Indeed, I explicitly stated that there are significant kinds of knowledge worth spending a fair bit of money on even if they do not actually improve anyone’s well-being.

Nor do these conceptual points imply that basic research has not led to many beneficial technologies. I even mentioned one of Ringach’s examples, space exploration, saying that although it is often used as a stock example of research that doesn’t produce improvements in individuals’ well-being, it actually has produced all kinds of ancillary benefits, and that funding it would be justified even if it hadn’t. Marolt and I did not discuss the other examples of abstract mathematics, etc., but I would make the same two points about those. They often produce benefits in unanticipated ways, and they can be justified by the value of the knowledge they produce even if they did not in fact produce improvements in individual well-being.

However, the second key point I made is that, when one is evaluating research that harms and kills animals, the moral threshold is higher than it is with other academic pursuits: that kind of research cannot be justified merely on the grounds that it produces knowledge if that knowledge is “totally unrelated to anything practical” (by which I meant “totally unrelated to improving individual well-being”). Ringach’s objections to this point, examples of basic research leading to medical imaging technology, are logically irrelevant, since the basic research that led to their development was not totally unrelated to anything practical: it ultimately led to beneficial technologies. None of Ringach’s examples are of the right form to constitute an objection to either of the two key points I was making at this point in the dialogue.

In my remarks, I also acknowledged the difficulty in evaluating, before the fact, whether specific animal research will be related to improvements in individual well-being. Even if some animal research, tragically, didn’t result in any knowledge at all, that alone wouldn’t show that the original decision to pursue the research was unjustified. In some cases, it would have been reasonable at the onset of the research to think it would ultimately contribute to benefits significant enough to justify the research, even if eventually it did not.

I do agree that I was overly dismissive of what can be learned from poorly designed experiments or experiments that fail to produce the intended knowledge. I am appreciative of the audience member who pressed me on this during the Q&A, at which point I did concede that one can learn something even from poorly designed or unsuccessful experiments and that both positive and negative results can lead to benefits. However, I’ve never heard of an IACUC approving research that involves harming and killing animals, when they believe the research to be poorly designed or believe that it would not produce the intended knowledge, merely in the hopes that we might learn something useful. So I don’t think that this concession has much practical import.

The Inconsistent
Ringach notes that I voted against Ned Kalin’s protocol on the grounds that the value of the data did not justify the harms to the animals, especially given other research avenues that would also benefit those suffering from anxiety disorders, even though they would not directly answer Kalin’s specific scientific question. But Ringach wonders how it is then consistent for me to also acknowledge, as I did, that I didn’t fully understand the details of the analyses the researchers were going to perform on the brain tissue of the moneys to establish the molecular pathways involved in anxiety.

Perhaps I am missing Ringach’s point, but it seems to me that there is no inconsistency here at all. Given what Kalin and the other scientists on the Committees said, it seemed reasonable for me to defer to their expertise and assume that the protocol’s proposed analyses would establish which molecular pathways were involved in anxiety. I then had to decide how important I considered that knowledge to be. Just as I don’t need to fully understand how Google Maps produces its maps to evaluate how useful they are, I also don’t need to fully understand how Kalin was going to answer his scientific question to have a view about its importance. I think this is often the situation with individual IACUC members, both scientists and non-scientists alike: they don’t need to understand every single scientific detail of the methods to have a reasonable and informed opinion about the significant of the anticipated findings. (Of course, the committee as a whole needs to have, or have access to, sufficient expertise to evaluate scientific validity of the protocols they review.)

In closing, I appreciate Ringach’s contribution to this particular discussion as well as his work encouraging public dialogue more generally, and I hope that my responses here further advance the discussion.

Robert Streiffer, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy
University of Wisconsin, Madison

PeTA tries to save face… and fails.

During the past month the University of Wisconsin responded to an aggressive media campaign by PeTA suggesting photos of animal studies they obtained are “proof” of violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

PeTA filed complaints with the USDA and the National Institutes of Health demanding an investigation.  The university responded point-by-point to PeTA complaint stating that none of them were substantiated.

The USDA took PeTA’s complaint seriously, conducted a focused inspection of the study in question, and found the claims by PeTA to be groundless.  As reported by the Capitol Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Badger Herald, the USDA found no wrongdoing, no violations of the law.  Not one.

How did PeTA respond to the outcome?

Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, Laboratory Investigations, went to Jane Velez-Mitchell (a PeTA supporter) and told her that “we report them [the alleged violations] to the federal authorities, to the USDA and the National Institutes of Health.” But, she added, “We [PeTA] don’t expect much about those agencies.”

What does Guillermo mean that they do not “expect much” when they file their claims with the authorities?

The USDA did take the claims seriously and took action as they requested.  They investigated the UW and found PeTA’s allegations to be untrue.  What Kathy Guillermo probably means is that when they file a claim PeTA does not expect that the findings will support their allegations. This would make perfect sense, as they probably know beforehand the allegations to be groundless. What PeTA truly expects from their claims is that their propaganda be picked up by the media before they are caught in their game and, unfortunately, they are rather successful in doing just that.

Sadly, it happened again.  In response to the USDA inspection PeTA found a former UW veterinarian that supposedly wrote a letter in support of PeTA’s claims which is being covered by the media.  But what did this veterinarian say exactly?

[...] Brown said the clear inspection report, which cited “no noncompliant items,” is not the fault of the USDA, or the veterinarian staff, but rather the fault of the administration.

According to Brown, who said he is familiar with the specific inspector who evaluated UW’s research facilities and is confident in her work, it is not in the nature of a USDA inspection to point out what is ethically “wrong,” but rather to cite noncompliance.

Hold on.  What is Brown saying?!  He is saying the inspector is known to him, that he has confidence in her work and, by inference, in the result of her inspections.  What is the problem then?  The problem is that in Brown’s eyes the work is unethical.  In other words, he acknowledges the work is legal, regulated, and that no violations of the law took place but, nevertheless, the work is unethical and he wanted the UW administration to take action.

His statement is hardly in support of PeTA’s claims.  To the contrary, it validates the position of the UW and puts confidence in the work by the USDA inspector.  You see, PeTA’s claimed a violation of the Animal Welfare Act — not that the work is unethical.

If PeTA believes the responsible and regulated use of animals to advance medical knowledge and human health is unethical, then they should try to convince the public and our legislators of such view. Instead, their preference to mislead the public and misrepresent the work of scientists are signs they simply cannot make a compelling case to the public.

Defending science and countering falsehood at the University of Wisconsin Madison

PeTA celebrated a victory the past week when they obtained photographs of cats that are part of medical research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The work involves a small number of cats in studies that provide better understanding of hearing and that are relevant to improving treatment for human deafness.

An explanation of the purpose of the research, the care of the animals, and the reason that cats make unique contributions to this work are all clearly addressed in a university statement:

The research develops a better understanding of how the brain combines information from the two ears, including sound localization. Cats are used because of their extraordinary talents at localizing sounds. Feral cats likely do most of their hunting at night because that is when their rodent prey is most active. Because vision at night is limited, hearing is the primary sensory cue for the cat to localize its prey. The cat auditory system is very similar to that of humans, making it relevant to clinical studies of humans with bilateral cochlear implants.

An op-ed written by UW-Madison Department of Neuroscience professors Donata Oertel and Peter Lipton on behalf of 65 UW faculty members provides a voice of reason among a sea of emotive, rather than factual, accusations.

Widely recognized and respected in the biomedical research community, this research benefits hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from hearing loss. It is being mischaracterized by animal rights militants for their own purposes.

By spreading misinformation and outright falsehoods, PETA bypasses our system of justice and promotes harassment and attacks on the people and institutions that engage in important biomedical research.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison also seem less than impressed by PeTA’s allegations, and were not afraid to say so when interviewed by the Badger Herald and Daily Cardinal during a PeTA protest yesterday. Speaking to the Daily Cardinal about research she is involved in, biochemistry major Kelsey Corrigan rejected PeTA’s claims concerning the treatment of animals:

“We are not vicious toward them or treat them poorly, instead we use them in an effort to gain knowledge about cancer treatments.”

While PeTA used these photographs effectively to attract media and public attention, as is often the case, the images did not tell the whole story about the research.  Nor did PeTA.

That is not surprising. The point of PeTA’s three year quest to obtain these photographs—or really, any photographs at all that might be novel and useful in their campaigns—is absolutely straightforward.  Their goal is to provide the public with a negative view of animal research. The more sensational the photographs, the better they are; better for attracting media coverage, better for persuading others that laboratory animal research is inhumane without actually providing the facts, context, and accurate information.

What is surprising is the relative ease with which this tactic continues to work for groups like PeTA. Part of the reason that it works is that activist groups know they are unlikely to be countered immediately by effective presentation of the facts and explanation that the public or media would need to put the photographs into appropriate context. We have written previously about exactly this type of campaign and the continuing need for a much more public, immediate, and specific response that can provide reasonable people with answers to the questions that are raised by photographs provided without any context at all.

We were glad to see that the University of Wisconsin did in fact address each of PeTA’s claims with specific information in a point-by-point response that shows just how far PeTA went to misrepresent the facts about research at the University.  We hope that those who are interested in knowing more about the cats and the research will go beyond the PeTA pictures and give thoughtful consideration to the university’s detailed explanation of what those pictures show and why the research is performed.

The research community can do little to change the minds of those committed to ending animal research and that is not the goal of providing a public response to misrepresentation.  What the research community and their institutions can do, however, is to acknowledge the importance of contributing the factual information that is so urgently needed for the informed dialogue that a serious topic deserves.

It is an unfortunate reality that groups like PeTA will use sensational tactics and stunts as part of their agenda. In a time of continuing increases in transparency of animal research in the U.S., along with rapidly evolving communication tools, it is also an unfortunate reality that the old-school approach of institutions offering no comment, or offering blanket statements in response to public and media queries, will simply not work.  We need responses– like those of the UW-Madison faculty, administrators, and students– that support the science, address misrepresentation, provide facts, and promote civil dialogue.

Allyson J. Bennett

Addendum October 11, 2012 : The USDA inspection report has now been published and confirms that no non-compliant items were identified during the focused inspection at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in late September and early October.  In his story “Feds Clear UW of Wrongdoing Following PeTA Complaint”, Capital Times reporter Todd Finkelmeyer posts the USDA inspection report  and this summary:  “’This officially closes this matter for us,’ USDA spokesman David Sacks said in an email to the Cap Times. Sacks added that this was a ‘focused inspection — not a full facility inspection,’ and was designed to look specifically at the allegations leveled by PETA.”

Lori Gruen on the Ethical Justification of Animal Research Experiments

Prof. Lori Gruen gave an interesting talk this week at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on Animal Research and the Limits of Medicine.  You can watch her presentation and discussion here.

She appealed to those engaged in animal research to offer a more detailed explanation of how the cost and benefits of individual experiments are assessed, while insisting that ethical permissibility also requires passing a “non-speciesist test.”  In other words, scientists must be willing to perform the same experiments proposed on cognitively impaired humans with comparable cognitive abilities than the species under consideration.

Prof. Gruen offered a couple of examples of research we would all consider to be off limits, however she struggled to apply her own criteria to give us instances of invasive, biomedical experiments she feels are morally justified.  When challenged to list a such examples, she paused for a while, and then offered a rather unsatisfactory response — “This is too big a question.”

Unfortunately, making such moral judgements is at the heart of the issue. It is the central question that scientists at NIH study sections have to answer every day at Center for Scientific Review at the NIH, where a panel of experts evaluate and recommend scientific proposals so that our society funds the most promising research as judged by our best scientific minds.  The NIH panel also considers ways in which the research could be refined, by using less animals, or lower species, or alternative methods, and flags those applications that are problematic accordingly.  An entirely parallel, independent review process occurs within the IACUCs of each institution the same lines, providing an additional layer of safety. It would be wrong to insinuate there is no thoughtful assessment of the cost and benefits of the research.

If moral philosophers want to have an active participation in the ethical decision process they must be able to answer how and when they will find a particular research proposal justified or not. The public (which is certainly a stakeholder in the research as much as those that would like to advocate for much stricter limits) would very likely want to know, for example, if Prof. Gruen would have approved of the use of animals in the development of the Polio vaccine, or the use of mice to develop new therapies for aggressive forms of breast cancer, or the use of rats to develop a cure for  paralysis?  Would she have approved these projects only if the investigators expressed their willingness to experiment on cognitively impaired children as well?  If so, would she endorse such experiments herself?

Utilitarians may find their applied ethics tools to be of little use when judging any one single experiment in science.  It is due in part to the nature of scientific research which can be exemplified with this challenge.  Briefly, there is a substantial problem with deciding the moral worth of scientific work based on its consequence, because that outcome is initially unknown — otherwise there would be no need for the experiment in the first place.

Peter Singer, for example, justified the use of monkeys in the development of a therapy for Parkinson’s disease in a recent encounter with neuroscientist Tipu Aziz, who was explaining to Singer that:

To date 40,000 people have been made better with this [Parkinson’s therapy], and worldwide at the time I would guess only 100 monkeys were used at a few laboratories.

To which, Singer replied:

Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided—I take it you are the expert in this, not me—that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research.

Of course the problem is that this is a post hoc justification. There was, of course, no way for Singer to know the experiments would yield such important benefits. One must ask how Singer or Gruen would respond had they been asked to approve the experiments before they were conducted.

One would also need to ask, in addition, what would be the consequences for human suffering had they successfully argued against the work that led to the development of the Polio vaccine, or deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s, or the development of new breast cancer treatments and so on.  From a scientist’s perspective, it seems that opponents of research do not spend sufficient time asking what would be the consequences of stopping the work.

There was another paradoxical aspect of Gruen’s talk. Clearly, Prof. Gruen agrees that suffering is morally relevant.  Curiously, when considering research aimed at restoring function in paralysis, which we learned afflicts one of her friends, she said the discussion has to be carried out in the “abstract” as otherwise “we might be informed by the wrong factors.”  This seems to me a rather curious attempt to deny her own human suffering. Isn’t human suffering relevant in her mind?  Why would considering human suffering be the same as being informed by the “wrong factors”?

An illustration from Gruen’s book

On the positive side it was refreshing to hear Prof. Gruen say that she thinks scientists are “not out there to hurt animals” for no reason, but that they genuinely want to improve human health. This statement seems a world apart from the graphics and text of her animal liberation book, which depicts scientists as nothing short of vicious, sadistic monsters, and justifies the actions of the Animal Liberation Front.