ScienceBlogs fight for Research

Over the last few days we’ve seen a battle develop between science bloggers and elements of the extreme animal rights movement. This furore followed the panel discussion that gathered groups in favor and opposed to the use of animals in research. The debate itself was deemed a success by all who took part, with Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science releasing a joint statement to this effect:

Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science held what, in our judgement and that of many of our colleagues, was an extremely positive and informative discussion on the science and ethics of biomedical research using animals […] Dialogue prevailed.

Sadly, not all activists were as pleased with this free and open dialogue. The Negotiation is Over blog (the name says it all really… – note this is an AR extremist website) written by Camille Marino, Dr. Stephen Best, Jason Miller and others, made clear their contempt for dialogue. This hypocrisy is evident when you consider it was they who have been calling for scientists to engage in public debate.

To interfere with the efforts for a public forum on this issue they began by publishing the address and contact details for Janet Stemwedel (one of the speakers), and tried to undermine the other pro-research speakers explaining:

NONE OF THEM ARE MEDICAL DOCTORS; repeat, NONE of the three vivisectionists have EVER treated a single patient in their lives and their torture of animals has NEVER helped a human patient.

This appears to show a significant misunderstanding as to the difference between clinical doctors who work directly with patients, and researchers who bring about an understanding of the human body and the pathologies that affect them. Without researchers, working with animal models, we would not have most of the medical treatments which doctors use to improve the lives of billions of people. A more personal explanation was given by PZ Myers on the Pharyngula blog who counteracted the accusations against Colin Blakemore:

My daughter was born with mild strabismus. Our doctor was rightly concerned, and took us aside to explain what happens to the brain in these case, citing the research done on cats (which I was already familiar with, since I was trained as a developmental neurobiologist). The brain is a plastic organ, and even for several years after birth, it is being wired and remodeled — the optic nerves are making connections with specialized targets in the brain. The young brain actually tests for disparities in the signals from the two eyes and makes adjustments to minimize noise in the signal — too much variance, and it automatically starts shutting down confusing inputs. We knew from the work on cats that, while my daughter had two perfectly functional eyes, her brain was going to respond by rewiring to ignore one of them.

She spent her first several years with therapy designed from the perspective of our understanding of how the plastic brain works — understanding directly derived from the work of people like Blakemore. She also had a series of surgeries to adjust and strengthen the muscles of her eyes.

Think about this: you have a baby daughter who needs precise surgeries done on the tiny, delicate muscles of her eyes. Do you want her to be the very first practice surgery the doctor has ever done, or would you rather, perhaps, that the doctor had done his practice surgeries on animals first? Early in my career, I worked as an animal care assistant in a department of surgery, and that’s what most of the animals were used for: teaching medical students the basics of their craft, running students through simple procedures that made them learn how to handle tissues, how to cope with bleeding, how to repair damage, all stuff that you cannot do except on living organisms.

In the weeks leading up to the panel discussion, activists carried out demonstrations outside the homes of three UCLA researchers – David Jentsch (founder of Pro-test for Science), Dario Ringach and Edythe London.

"UCLA kills animals for profit" is about as close to the mark as "surgeons render people unconcious for cash" ... both wildly miss the point

NIO’s pro-violent leanings (and we’re not just talking violence against property) were made more than evident:

[Jentch] too has a “rent-a-cop” in front of his house twenty-four hours a day, ever since his car was blown up last year. Most everyone agrees that it would have been great if he had been in it!

In a follow up post Ms Marino leaves us in no doubt as to her true motives:

the time for rational discourse has expired and the time for militant and implacable struggle has commenced

This strikes me as being another way of saying, “we failed miserably to address your points with any coherence or rationality, so we’ll be resorting to more extreme measures”. The Meddling Kids blog took a closer look at the question of extremism:

These people are extremists. When you add the word “extreme” to any position, you take all the capacity for logic and discourse out of the equation. You cannot go to them and talk. You cannot bridge the gap. There is a wire that is simply not there anymore in the gray matter, and you might as well try reasoning with a can of tuna. I believe extremism is a form of psychosis, like an ideological narcissistic personality disorder. The best that we can do is keep our eyes on them and be there when they screw up to remove them. And that goes for all extremists.

Sadly, NIO went one step further by calling for activists to go to the school where Ringach’s children are educated. This provoked widespread outrage across the blogs. Dr. Stemwedel of the Adventures in Ethics and Science blog reported:

For just daring to stand up and share his view, Dario was targeted for more home demonstrations. And now, activists threaten to bring the demonstrations to his children’s schools, to “educate fellow students what their classmate’s father does for a living”.

Express the view that scientific research is worth doing, plan on your kids being harassed? Is that what we’ve come to? Is this really the society we want to live in?

If it’s not, we need to stand up and say so, in no uncertain terms.

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

Scicurious on the Neurotopia blog also expressed anger at the activists, encouraging researchers to speak up. This fantastic post includes an explanation of the importance of animals in research, and an essay of Scicurious’s personal experience of working with animals:

People are entitled to their opinions. Many people DO disagree, believing that animal research is ethically wrong, no matter what it may provide for humanity, and that’s fine. Their opinions are as valid as mine. There is no problem in disagreeing with what we do, and asking us to change what we do and how we do it. Protest, change laws and legislation. Enter into a dialogue. There are many people who disagree and do so in a way that harms no one, and that certainly doesn’t go after someone’s children. Some tactics are too much. No child should live in fear because of what their parents do for a living. Our hiding needs to be over. We shouldn’t have to do our work in fear of threats, intimidation, and severe bodily harm. We need to speak up.

Speaking of Research echo this call for scientists to speak up rather than backdown in the face of activist aggression (and we are not just talking about those scientists who have been targeted – we must all stand up together). We encourage people to get involved in any way they can.

Scientists, students and members of the public stand up in support of lifesaving medical research

The White Coat Underground blog addressed the hypocrisy of animal rights activists:

The hypocrisy of these groups is infinite. To change the way our society views animal research, you have to actually convince society that your position has merit.  You can’t (morally) force it on anyone through threats and violence. The animal rights crowd knows this, and they know that they are nowhere near convincing a significant number of people.  Since they have failed at dialog and debate, they have switched to terrorism, and targeting researches isn’t enough for them—now they are targeting children.

MarkCC of the Good Math, Bad Math blog spoke of how his family has personally benefited from animal research – something which most of us will probably sympathise with then we think about the treatments that ourselves and our family’s have benefited from. It is also worth noting that as a computer scientist Mark is more aware than most as to the limits of computer simulations as an alternative to animal models:

I can say for certain that I wouldn’t be alive today without the results of animal research: I had life-saving surgery using a technique that was developed using animals. I rely on medications that were originally developed using animal models. My mother is alive today because of animal research: she’s diabetic, and relies on both insulin and medications which were developed using animal research. My father survived cancer for 15 years because of animal research: his cancer was treated using a radiation therapy technique that was generated using animal research. My sister isn’t a cripple today, because of animal research. She had severe scoliosis which would have crippled her, but which was corrected using a surgical technique developed using animals. My wife would be terribly ill without animal research: she’s got an autoimmune disorder that damages the thyroid; people with it need to take thyroid hormone replacements, developed – all together now – using animal research. I could easily go on: there’s probably barely a person alive today who hasn’t benefited dramatically from animal research. It’s an essential tool of science.

The flurry of science blogs resulted in a torrent of pro-research and anti-violence comments being posted on the NIO website – much to the displeasure of Marino. This was nicely summed up by Orac of the Respectful Insolence blog:

The reaction of Marino to the valid criticism of her advocacy of violence against researchers that flowed into her blog after a Pharyngulanche led science-based individuals there, where those who saw the unhinged rants against scientists were understandably disgusted, was most instructive, as is her formal “response.” It is very clear that Marino is not used to having to defend her hate-filled, violence fetishism, as her responses consist mostly of rants against “vivisectors” coupled with “invitations” to critics to be interviewed by her.

More posts also came from Nick Anthis of The Scientific Activist, DrugMonkey (an interesting post about Sentience), the Ambivalent Academic blog and some more on speaking up from Dr. Stemwedel. Also, Orac’s (Respectful Insolence blog) report of the recent events is not to be missed – he takes a good look at some of the interchanges between bloggers on both the NIO and Scienceblog websites.

PZ Myers (Pharyngula) also directed a lot of traffic to our website with a mini-endorsement:

Earlier, I linked to that ghastly “Negotiation is Over” anti-research site. Let me balance that with a link to the pro-science site, Speaking of Research. Compare the two, it’s enlightening. Guess which one relies on shrieking all-caps accusations and threats of dire harm to the people on the other side?

NIO and its editors have made their position clear – that they are part of an extremist minority in the AR movement who are not interested in reason or dialogue. They have proposed, endorsed and celebrated violence within their movement and we call on all clear-thinking people – both those for and against the use of animals for research – to openly condemn their words and their actions. We thank Bruins for Animals, Ray Greek, and the many scientific bloggers (many of whom are mentioned above), for openly opposing this extremist fringe, and we hope many more follow in their path.


Tom Holder

Please check out our relevant posts on:
Getting Involved – How you can get involved
AR Extremism – Our look at Animal rights extremism and what to do about it
The Panel Discussion – “Score One for Dialogue”, written by SR member Megan Wyeth.
Joint Statement against violence – by Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science