Daily Archives: March 21, 2012

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