Whatever happened to dialogue?

One of the goals of Speaking of Research and Pro-Test for Science is to communicate facts and information about the responsible use of animals in biomedical research.  A second, equally important goal, is to try to understand the impediments to dialogue and establish a two-way conversation with animal activists and members of the public that are truly interested in an honest and open discussion.

What have we done in this regard?

In 2010 Drs. David Jentsch and Dario Ringach, along the student group Bruins for Animals, organized a discussion panel at UCLA that was considered a good first step at establishing some sort of meaningful dialogue with opponents of animal research.   The event was marred by multiple attempts from animal extremists to derail these first efforts to open a conversation.  They were unsuccessful.

It is clear that despite much calls for open debate on the use of animals in scientific experimentation some animal extremists do not want such conversation to takes place.  As an example, after the panel discussion a local group of animal activists led by Pamelyn Ferdin (wife of Jerry Vlasak, press officer for the Animal Liberation Front) continued their outrageous home demonstrations targeting the very same UCLA faculty that organized the event.  This outrageous behavior resulted in a decreased willingness from many among the UCLA community to continue planning additional meetings.

Despite such state of affairs, in Feb 2011 Dr. Ringach and Robert C. Jones (an animal rights philosopher from California State University at Chico and a participant in the our 2010 discussion panel), organized a one-day symposium on the similarities and dissimilarities of human and non-human primate cognition.  This was done with the agreement that any ethical debate on animal experimentation must start with clear scientific understanding of what is known about animal minds.  The symposium featured a very interesting set of presentations and discussions.  Video of this event is available online.

In the last two years Dr. Ringach participated in two debates on the use of animals in research.  The first one at the Institute for Human Values in Health Care at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he debated animal rights philosopher Dr. Nathan Nobis.  Manuscripts resulting from this symposium will be published by the American Journal of the Medical Sciences shortly.   A second debate took place at Rutgers Law School, where he debated animal rights scholar Prof. Gary Francione. A video of this event will also be made available online by Rutgers University in the near future.

We are often asked by colleagues and institutional officials if these efforts have been worthwhile.  The results have been mixed.  One one hand, despite all the associated problems, these activities have served to establish personal lines of communications with animal activists that are truly willing to listen to the other side, and the public get the message that all those involved in the responsible use of animal research are ready explain their side of the story. On the other hand, these activities have certainly drawn  increased threats and violence from animal rights activists that disapprove of civilized engagement. True, such behavior from a minority of animal rights extremists was anticipated.  What was not anticipated was the nearly absolute silence from the rest of the animal rights community on this issue.

As the scientific community reflects as a whole on the value of holding such events we cannot help but wonder — where are the animal rights activists and organizations that deplore violence and are interested in an honest and open dialogue?  Please step forward and tell us — what have you done to foster dialogue?


Speaking of Research